Jean Ellen Whatley is my second author interview. Her book, “Off the Leash”, will be published by Blank Slate Press, Missouri, October 2012. Be prepared to be blown away by Jean Ellen. I was certainly impressed when I heard her speak at a Saturday Writers meeting in St. Peters, Missouri.
Please feel free to leave a comment on this blog post, or follow my blog by email.
While you’re here, check out the other posts and pages on inspirational messages of travel, nature, friends and family.
Okay, Jean Ellen, let’s get started!
1) Jean, what inspired you to pen “Off The Leash”?
Like so many writers, for more than 30 years I’d been juggling the day job, first as a TV reporter, then political press secretary and at one time an advertising executive, all the while working nights and weekends in pursuit of the one job I felt I was meant to do: to be a writer, a real writer. I longed to attach my name to something which did not have “police have no suspects in custody” or “operators standing by.” When my oldest brother was in the final days of his life, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which took him out in a short eleven months, I was sitting on my front porch in a grief-sodden stupor drinking coffee with my dog at my feet. This was our Sunday morning custom. All of a sudden, she jumped up and bolted across the yard, and stopped short, like something you’d see in a cartoon. She was barking and writhing in doggie misery because she could not chase the object of her most fervent desire–the black and white calico cat next door taunting her from the shade of a Boxwood bush. We have an electric fence all around our yard. Libby, my ultimate canine conspirator and road trip companion, would not cross the invisible fence. What she did not know is that her barrier had no bite, the batteries in her shock collar were dead. It was like a message from the universe daring me to challenge the choke hold on my life, to bottom line what was most important to me forcing me to consider, “if I died today, how many of my dreams would die with me?” I knew with sadness the folly of waiting for the perfect time to attend to the things that I longed for. I had wanted to take my sweet big brother Don on a road trip back to the places where we grew up. I lost my chance. He died the next day. It was the saddest but most motivating lesson to do it now. The only thing worse than being trapped in fear is living with regret.
2) Where there times on your journey with your dog driving across America that you just wanted to give up?
Well, considering that we were in a car, physically, it’s not like we were out hitchhiking across America or in a conestoga wagon or anything, but I was on extremely limited funds. When I backed out the driveway in St. Louis, I was risking everything I had: my house, my car, (if the repo guys could track me down) my station in life — modest as it was, I was putting everything that I had worked for as a divorced mother with four kids, putting all of that at risk to go on this road trip to reclaim my life. I had a half-brother out in northern California whom I had never seen, from my biological father, whom I had never known. So there was a mission to my madness, I just didn’t have to cash for gas. I launched a Kickstarter campaign, one of the most inventive ways for artists to find patrons to fund their projects, set a goal of just enough money to get me to California and back, and I hit the road. Now, most people wait until they get their projects funded and then embark, I took off and hoped for the best, blogging from the road. Funding pledges came in — but it wasn’t until I was two weeks into my journey that I would learn if I’d have enough money to make it back home. The night before I learned my funding fate was a tough one. I’d either have to come back home embarrassed and defeated, or wait tables and stash the dog in a “pay by the week” motel along the way to earn enough money to fund the rest of the trip. Fortunately, seventy-two individuals who believed in me kicked in to help me finish the trip. The book is entirely devoted to them and the family members whom I hold so dear. One note about traveling solo: it’s not like you can drop off your miserable sorry self off at the dry cleaners and come back to pick yourself up when you’re in a shiny mood. You have to slug your way through the sometimes sad moments — and on this trip, miles and miles and miles of self-doubt over what I had risked to embark on this odyssey.
3) Who would be interesting in reading your book?
For anyone who’s lost a loved one to cancer, there is solace here, for any woman who’s ever been lied to by a man, and there might be a few of out there, there’s not only solidarity here, but a story of strength and forgiveness here, for any single mother in our country, who has to get up and trudge off to work day after day to keep her family afloat, there is understanding and encouragement here, for every adult who has had to recover from sexual abuse, there is healing and victory here, for every sister, daughter, mother, girlfriend, there are examples of abiding love here and for every person who has ever loved a dog, this is a tale of bonding of the highest order.
4) What advice can you offer to writers?
Not sure that I’m qualified to give advice to writers, all I can do is pass along what I’ve been blessed to receive — keep writing. Inspiration is fleeting — jot it down when the words pop up like conversation bubbles in your head, but don’t wait for them to appear. We all have A Days, B Days, C Days — but you have to slug through the C Days — make yourself make some progress on what you’re working on. You can go back and make it better later. D Days and below, have a drink. Try again tomorrow. The one other thing I would encourage writers to do — get to the heart of why you’re doing it, stay true to that. I wrote this memoir because I wanted to honor my family and I felt in some small way that I might be able to contribute to a broader dialogue about how imperfect our lives can be and yet be blessedly rich. That was my truth — I had to tell this story. Find your truth. Write your story. No matter what happens to it, publishing “success” or not — it will be a testament to your life.
5) And finally, as Anne Lamott once said in her book “bird’ by bird” (I asked this during the previous author spotlight interview), it’s important to have a moral position in life. What is your moral position?
Wow, never been asked that question. I suppose it might be to not be moralizing, keep an open heart and to truly be kind to people. My mother was a dust bowl Okie, she and her parents moved to California in 1936, she came from very humble roots, a dysfunctional family before it was part of pop culture, and she had to navigate her self and her scrappy bunch of kids through a world that could be discriminatory and difficult, yet she always held that she had more that she could give than what many were able to give. She would tell us, “to those who’ve been given much, much will be expected.” There were so many times when she didn’t have enough money to make it to the next payday, but in her mind, she expected her kids to rise above, be generous, kind, and set an example of compassion and human decency. I suppose trying to live up to her expectations is my moral position.
Jean Ellen Whatley is an Emmy Award-winning journalist cum author who’s been published on Salon.com, More.com, SheWrites.com and, at the low ebb of her writing career, as the Bedding Columnist for Furniture Retailer Magazine.
Jean has been a guest columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Winston-Salem Journal, and the Albuquerque Tribune and has been featured as guest host on “The Evening Special” on KMOX (CBS) radio in St. Louis.
Jean’s broadcast career spans nearly twenty years and several diverse regions of the country.
Check out her website at http://jeanellenwhatley.com/