Interview with Jeanette Watts
The book I’m currently talking about, Wealth and Privilege, is Historical Fiction. History is my playground and I love research, so that’s why I’ve written more books in this genre than any other. But I’ve also written stage melodramas, and marketing materials, and a textbook on waltzing, and a screenplay for a romantic comedy about the sport of fencing, and a modern-day satire on Jane Austen. Ever since Fifty Shades of Gray came out, I’ve been wondering about writing in that genre. I have an idea that I think would be both sexy and thought provoking. But I also have a children’s book I’d like to write, about my guardian angel. My brain doesn’t sit still much.
What's your favourite quote about writing/for writers?
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” That’s obviously an old quote. I first heard it in college, when we really did write with pen and paper, and then typed everything up before turning it in. My other favorite quote is the end of the first sonnet in Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella: “Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: ‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’ ” In a way, both these quotes are saying exactly the same thing.
Who is your favorite character in your book and why?
One of my favorite characters is George. It’s a bit part; he’s my hero’s coachman. He sees much, but says very little. He is the soul of dependable. He’s that quintessential always-there-when-you-need-him kind of guy. It’s very much in the background, but I left hints. When the hero’s father dies on Christmas, George is still around to take care of the hero. Now, most of the household staff is very devoted and thoughtful, but George always goes the extra mile. (Yes, pun intended.) He is to Wealth and Privilege what R2-D2 is to Star Wars. Plucky and resourceful and helpful.
Why do you think readers are going to enjoy your book?
I put a lot of care into making the history seem real. My characters go through big crises of the Industrial Revolution, like the Railroad Riot in 1877 and the Johnstown Flood of 1889. My accounts of those events are taken from newspapers and eyewitness accounts and biographies. The water tower my characters climb when they witness the massacre is right there on the maps. The hourly descriptions of events are straight out of the accounts at the time. They are immediate, and heart-stopping. I also want readers t to know what everyday activities felt like, smelled like, tasted like. So I talk about the clothes, the dancing, the food, the extracurricular activities of the time. I always want the reader to feel like they’re inside the story, inside the locations.
How long did it take you to write your book?
Ten years! I started, then stopped, then picked it up again, then six months would go by before I wrote any more, then I needed another research trip to go get answers to a bunch of questions. Back then, I couldn’t get online and look up the census records for Johnstown in 1880. I had to go to Johnstown and look them up in the library! The change in available resources is huge. I also learned to spend less time on the laundry, and email, and lawn mowing, and other distractions, and put more time into writing. I got this book finally finished because my best friend would call me up every single day and ask, “Have you worked on your book today?” After three days of saying “no,” my conscience would kick in, and I’d let the mundane tasks slip to a lower priority, and I’d get some writing done.
Fishing was a big sport for rich men in the late 1800s. That was probably the most astonishing thing I learned in my research. When I was little, my dad fished because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have anything to eat for dinner that night. So, for me, the idea of fishing as something millionaires did to relax took me a while to absorb. I found lots of surprises in history. Unions and management were not actually enemies in the 1870s. They respected each other, the battles came later. I love sharing these things that challenge our assumptions. History is always more interesting and more complicated than we think.
Who inspires you?
People of courage and tenacity. Edward R. Murrow. Ulysses S. Grant. Grace O’Malley. And, in her own way, Alva Vanderbilt. They all lived in “interesting times,” and in their various situations, had to face down very powerful enemies. They had to use what resources they had to the best of their abilities. Failure was always a danger, but fear didn’t stop any of them from doing what they thought was right.
What is your work in progress? Tell us about it.
When I finished writing Wealth and Privilege, I thought I was done with that world and the characters. And readers kept approaching and asking, “You ARE writing a sequel, right?” I wasn’t planning on it. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a sequel to Gone With the Wind. And then I realized I knew where I wanted to go with it. And then the characters started beating on the inside of my brain. At that point, I didn’t have a choice anymore. Since I knew the characters and the research is so much easier now, it isn’t going to take me ten years to write the sequel. I’m calling it Brains and Beauty.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing verses traditional publishing?
Traditional publishing is a mystery to me. I read terrible books, poorly researched, poorly written, that were able to get an agent and a publisher. Someone gave this writer money and put it in print? And then I’ll find some self-published work that is brilliant, but the author couldn’t even get an agent, much less a publisher. There’s a bias that anyone with a little money can be in print with a book full of poor grammar, but I see traditionally published works that are full of typos. If traditional publishing is not there for quality control, what are they there for?
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
I’m a dance instructor. I teach college students, elementary school children, senior citizens, church members, the LGBT community, etc, etc how to dance. It is one of the most joyous things in life, helping people connect with other people in the form of a tango, or a polka, or a waltz, or a schottische. I am the pet caller for a Civil War brass band, and I call set dances. I teach couples to dance for their wedding. Besides that, I run a Cancan troupe and a belly dance troupe. I love being in motion!