Friday, May 10, 2013

Featured Author: Elizabeth Jennings

The Button Collector is Elizabeth Jennings just-released novel, published by PageSpring Publishing’s Cup of Tea Books imprint. PageSpring is offering an introductory discount of 45 percent on the paperback edition only (US markets) through May 24.

About the book:

On a gray day at a gritty flea market, Caroline Tilghman stumbles upon an unlikely treasure—-jars and jars of buttons in a dazzling kaleidoscope of colors.

Caroline is reminded of something she has made herself forget-—she too has a jar of buttons, an inheritance from her mother, which she has put on the back of a shelf. Out of sight. Out of mind. Out of her life.

That night, Caroline takes the jar down from the shelf. Intending only to look at the buttons, she opens the lid . . . and pours out her family's secrets.

The Button Collector unfolds with a series of vignettes in which each button reveals a piece of the bittersweet history of Caroline's family. A tragic accident forever alters the relationship between Caroline, her mother Emma, and her cousin Gail. Caroline sifts through the joys and anguishes of the past, bringing both herself and the reader to the realization that memories—-like buttons—-can sometimes be used to fasten together something we have left undone by mistake.

Interview with Elizabeth Jennings

Welcome, Elizabeth. How did you come up with the title The Button Collector?

I’ve gone through many titles for my book, which is based on stories connected to a family’s button collection. The original was The Button Bag because in my family we kept buttons in an old cloth bag. Next was Circles of Color, a phrase from the opening. Much later I decided to emphasize the story collection aspect and changed the title to The Button Collection. When I got a contract with PageSpring Publishing, my editor wanted me to try The Button Jar because it’s a stronger visual image. Finally, the publisher suggested The Button Collector so that readers would be able to connect with a specific character and real-life button collectors would be able to find it easily. By this point, the book was much more of a novel than a collection, so I think it’s perfect.

Do you have another job outside of writing? 

I am a professional dabbler. Besides writing fiction, I have worked as a newspaper features writer and advertising copy writer, and I’ve done all sorts of free-lance work.  I’ve also worked as a tutor, adjunct instructor for a community college, director of a literacy council, university press intern, and the advisor for the creative arts journal at a girls’ middle school. I never know what I’ll be doing next, but I’m thinking about teaching a continuing education class on blogging. I’ve enjoyed the blogging aspect of being an author. I get to write whatever I want. It’s like opium for a writer.

That's a good analogy. How would you describe your book in a tweet?

A jar of old buttons...A collection of memories...A linking of tales....

How did you create the plot for this book? 

Plot is my weakness so it was a long, painful process in some ways, but now I can say that I’m happy with how it turned out, so I believe that this was simply how my book was meant to evolve. The Button Collector is a novel in stories, similar to How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto or Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue.  At first the stories were quite episodic, but the characters began to introduce recurring plot elements on their own, especially the narrator, Caroline. It is her process of reconciliation that forms the basis of the overarching plot, but originally most of this happened in the final section. My editor suggested a revision that would pull elements from this final section and spread them throughout the book, making it clearly a novel rather than a story collection. I’d received other suggestions over the years—-such as limiting the points of view—-but this idea immediately struck me as the right one and it was surprisingly easy to do.    

Did you have any say in your cover art? What do you think of it? Tell us about the artist.

I didn’t have a say in the cover art, but that didn’t stop me from shooting off some panicky emails when my imagination went into overdrive about any number of cheesy possibilities! Fortunately, I love the cover art by Britanee Sickles, and it’s actually very close to what I had in my mind. The buttons spilling out of the jar have a mysterious quality and the colors are like jewels. The thing that is somewhat unique about my book is that in addition to the cover art, a pen and ink drawing prefaces each story. Sarah Allgire was the wonderful artist for these. The drawings offer a nice visual hook and give the book a little multimedia flavor.  

Tell us a book you’re an evangelist for. 

I stumbled across a book called The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami, which tells the story of a Canadian orphan who goes to live with her grandparents in India. The exotic appeal of the Indian segments drew me in—-my book has a touch of India in it, too—-but the plot is also perfectly done in terms of building up suspense. I think the reason it touched me so deeply was because the characters exhibit a deep and genuine tenderness as they struggle to make connections with each other. I wish more people would read it!    

Have you ever bought any books just for the cover? Did you enjoy the book(s)?

I love book covers, and they are indeed factors when I choose a book, but not usually the deciding factor. There is one book, however, that I definitely bought because of the combination of the cover and the title-—The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan, a Welsh author.  I ADORE that title and the cover is this wonderful, mystical drawing of a girl floating upward. I’ve since seen the UK cover and it is even more gorgeous—it shows a luminous orb held by a girl’s hands with her body blocked from view.  Fortunately, the book entirely lived up to its perfect packaging.  I love it. 

What do you do to market your book? 

The most unusual thing I’ve done to market my book is an interactive reader feature on my blog called "Flash Fiction, Button Style."  It invites readers to email a picture of a button, and I write a flash fiction piece telling the button’s story. It’s been fun! I limit it to 250 words in one hour so that I don’t go off the deep end with it. People ask me how I come up with the ideas for the stories, and I have to laugh. Coming up with ideas is one thing I never have trouble doing—-implementing ideas is another story, which is why limiting the scope works so well.    I’ve also jumped into online marketing and I’ve found it almost as enjoyable as writing the book. 

I have a website, blog, book trailer on YouTube, Twitter account, Facebook page, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc. I’ve enjoyed getting to know other bloggers, writers, and reviewers who’ve agreed to read my book. I’ve also had good luck getting endorsements from authors I admire—-Ann B. Ross, who writes the Miss Julia series of Southern humor books, Amy Willoughby--Burle, who is a North Carolina short story writer, and Susan Vreeland, who wrote Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia and other best sellers. I was over the moon when Vreeland did a blurb for me because her work has a kinship with my own, or at least with what I’m striving to achieve. 

Do you have imaginary friends? When do they talk to you? Do they tell you what to write or do you poke them with a Q-tip?

Do you mean there are people who don’t have imaginary friends? I not only have imaginary friends, I have imaginary families, clans, and villages. Sometimes I wonder if I should be concerned that they are so real. I’m usually the one who approaches them, and while they don’t tell me what to write, I’ve found that usually they have some wisdom to offer if I stop and try to figure out what it is. 

Which character did you most enjoy writing?

In The Button Collector, Caroline’s husband, Rishi, made a late appearance in the writing process, but I immediately liked him. By that point, Caroline’s identity of thwarting traditional Southern expectations was firmly established, so it made sense that she would go outside her culture if and when she married. Rishi is from India, with a Hindu upbringing, so he serves as a contrast to Caroline’s WASP family. It was fun to put a twist on the scenario and have Rishi quickly fit in with the clan, which forced Caroline to re-examine some assumptions she had made about her family and herself. Plus, Rishi is easy-going, good looking, and makes homemade chicken tikka masala. Who wouldn’t like Rishi?

What are your favorite books?

a) As a child
my favorite was The Witch of Blackbird Pond--even then I was attracted to multi-cultural perspectives, especially when they collided. The interface between the Puritans and the free-spirited girl from the Caribbean fascinated me.
b) As a teenager I was a serious Lord of the Rings fangirl. I’m talking posters, calendars, ephemera, multiple re-readings--the whole nine yards. I believe the fantasy genre enables people to examine their own human hopes and fears and dreams from a different angle even as it offers an expansive retreat from the ordinary. To this day, I have a weakness for fantasy and happily claim the title of nerd. 

c) As an adult, Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe is my all-time favorite, which kind of goes against the whole fantasy inclination, but somehow both are true. The character of Ian and the dilemmas he faced were so heartbreakingly human and true. Tyler’s work is also the type of fiction I usually write—-quiet, introspective, character-driven.

Tell us one weird thing, one nice thing, and one fact about where you live. 
Most of the squirrels in my backyard are white and they bully the gray squirrels. We are surrounded by waterfalls and public forests. The Eastern Continental Divide passes through our county. 

Is there anything in particular that you do to help the writing flow? Music? Acting out the scene? Long showers?

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the more you write, the easier it is to experience flow—-that almost magical immersion in your work during which you’re calmly focused and time flies. Little rituals can be helpful in getting to that place, but really the only secret for me is to write almost every day. When you do this, your mind—-both the conscious and subconscious parts-—will continue working on the story even when you’re not writing. Before long a character will tell you something or you’ll envision a scene in your head or a sequence or connection will pop up like an idea balloon, and you’ll have to sneak back to the keyboard and get it down. 

Watch The Button Collector book trailer:

About the author: 

Elizabeth Jennings has worked as a features writer, copywriter, tutor, and adjunct instructor, but first and foremost, she is a reader on the hunt for the next great story. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including Prime Number Magazine, Apalachee Review, and the children’s magazine Ladybug. A native of Clemson, South Carolina, she earned degrees in English from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The University of Delaware. She lives with her family within view of Mount Pisgah in the ancient and lush Blue Ridge Mountains. 

As both author and reader, Jennings has a deep affinity for quiet, character-driven stories and novels. She also has a fondness for frame tales and interconnected stories in which the individual pieces offer commentary on each other and come together to create a mosaic of various textures and moods. Since college, she has been fascinated with different forms of female creativity and the ways it has been expressed historically. The Button Collector is her first novel and is based on the idea that the smallest things around us can have meaning and offer perspective on the larger story that is our life.

Connect with Elizabeth:

Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Publisher

Buy the book!
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | kobo