Jean Lee Comes Clean on How She Became a Published Author and How She got the Idea for Her Debut Novel
After all, if Lee were not active on Instagram, I wouldn’t today be publishing her interview. That’s because a month or so ago I published an Instagram post asking for authors and poets who’d like to be interviewed to contact me.
And the post encouraged people to tag authors and poets in the comments, as a way of letting others know about the interview opportunity.
That’s how Jean Lee came to my attention. That’s why her interview is below. It’s also how she came to be a published author, but I’ll let her tell you that story.
The book is the first in a six-novel young adult fantasy series about a young rural Wisconsin woman who slips into a world filled with shapeshifters and dark magic. (By the way, the novel is on sale for $.99 in February [affiliate link].)
Wisconsin features prominently in Jean Lee’s own story, some of which she shares below. She discusses her rural background, why she panicked when a publisher contacted her, and how blogging plays a role in her creativity.
Plus, you can get a sense of Jean Lee’s storytelling ability. This interview was conducted over email, and Lee certainly put her storytelling spin on it. Enjoy!
Remember, if you’re a published poet or author, you too could be featured on Bidwell Hollow. Reach out to me via the Contact form on this website.
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Q&A with Jean Lee
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Wisconsin born and bred, a writer excited to share young-adult fiction with those who love to find other worlds hidden in the humdrum of everyday life. The rural landscape is brimming with potential, if one’s got the eye and imagination with which to look. I’ve got (Sir Arthur Conan) Doyle to thank for that.
The adventures of Sherlock Holmes resonate deeply with me for two reasons. First, they were dearly loved by my father, who would, on a rare evening when he could delay his church work, read a story aloud to me at bedtime.
Our town, our state, really, fit the description Holmes gave of England’s picturesque countryside.
Wisconsin is filled with hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Rock Springs was a town of 600 when I was a child, a little grain-fill stop for the railroad. We didn’t even have a gas station until I turned 5, and our library, a small portion of the town’s community center, could fit in a utility closet.
Farms and wild wood filled the gaps between towns—unless, of course, you went towards Wisconsin Dells, where the wilderness is trimmed and prepped and ready for its mandatory closeup before the tourist rushes to the proper civilization of water parks and casinos.
We drove through those wild patches often. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?
This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In Rock Springs, one could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.
Jean Lee on Writing
Is writing your full-time occupation?
I teach composition for an online university part-time. I parent three children full-time (8, 6, and 6). Yes, twins. Yes, they’re identical. Yes, I can tell them apart.
How did you come to writing?
I started telling stories before I knew how to write them, filling pages with pictures and audio cassettes with words. This passion for storytelling grew every year to become not only my focus of graduate study but also an escape from abuse and savior from postpartum depression.
How did you get started writing young adult fantasy?
I’ve always been drawn to creating unknowns where I can discover places and persons right alongside the reader. Such stories are the fire that warm the soul. They melt fear, ignite hope, and spark relationships like nothing else, especially for those ready to leave childhood and come of age.
What inspired you to write your debut novel, FallenPrinceborn: Stolen, the first of a six-novel series?
This might sound hypocritical, but Fallen Princeborn: Stolen is heavily inspired by the films and television I watched as a child, not by books. See, I actually spent my childhood reading mysteries, not fantasy. Save for Chronicles of Narnia, I was usually sticking my nose into the pages of Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Nancy Drew. What I watched, however…
Something Wicked This Way Comes introduced me to the Autumn People, to those hunting across the land of our reality, granting our wishes in return for our lives.
She-Ra proved a girl can be just as bad-ass as a guy.
Highlander brought me to the world of immortals who duel in forests and cities, carrying swords across time in the quest to be princes of the universe.
Labyrinth showed me how far a girl will travel to rescue the family stolen from her.
Beauty and the Beast explained how two souls can fit just so when given the chance. But for me, these souls have jagged edges with a thousand points. They may pierce, even draw a little blood, but the closer they come together, the more these two souls realize: they fit. So when I read, I read for the mystery of the unknown menace, and to ensure that menace brought to justice. But when I watched, I watched to see unknown places and witness unique characters do impossible deeds.
What role does your blog play in your writing and creativity?
For let’s face it: writing is, for many, a solitary process. Plotting, development, revision—so much of this requires concentration inward. Hours can pass before we speak a single word to anyone else.
Keeping the blog has allowed me to connect with fellow writers who can use need encouragement just as much as I do. We celebrate as well as commiserate together, and you’ll never find more faithful helpers in spreading the word about your work than a band of fellow bloggers.
But there’s a deeper, more important reason that I blog.
In the Writer’s Digest article “Bare Your Soul,” Maria Walley makes an excellent point about the power of vulnerability:
Your writing will make you vulnerable. After all, we’re taking the innermost parts of ourselves—our ideas—and translating them into words intended to provoke thought and, in some cases, emotion. It can be painful to do, but it’s also what makes good writing worth reading. It’s what make stories resonate.
Over the course of four years, I’ve learned that artists don’t just struggle with craft, but with Life. They’ve got their own issues with kids. Their battles with grief. Their injuries with abuse, with depression. My site Jean Lee’s World has allowed me to connect with others on these personal levels.
I no longer battle depression alone, for we have linked arm in arm to press on through the shadowed valleys to come out all the stronger, all the better, together.
Jean Lee on Getting Published
What was the process of finding a publisher like for you?
Short Answer: I was nudged by my husband. Key factor: panic.
Let’s back up a moment.
I had written the first draft back in 2010 for the National Novel Writing Month. It was the first time I’d written since the dark days of graduate school, and it felt so, so bloody good to be writing a story I genuinely cared about. But I was also a first-time mother, still a part-time teacher, so my time was very rarely my own. Over the years I’d pick at the story’s characters/plot/setting, and in 2015 I tried sending it out to a few agents. No interest.
So I put Stolen away. It was destined to be that “unsellable first novel”: the story that got me back into writing, but also the story that’d never see the light of day.
In the meantime, I started my site Jean Lee’s World and was writing there every week. I’d also taken up a challenge from indie author Michael Dellert to write a YA Fantasy series about shield maidens, so I was brain-deep in that. I’d visit Stolen every now and then, its voice finally coming in from the shadows with bleeding knuckles and a mouth full of sass. But still…surely no one would want to read this.
Wattpad’s a free publishing platform for stories, poems, plays, and so on. Since my website had been dedicated to writing about craft and music, it was cool to find a place where I could specifically share fiction and receive feedback on my YA Fantasy Middler’s Pride. My shield maiden series had gotten some excellent feedback as well as some honest to goodness readers—including the lead editor of Aionios Books, Gerri Santiago.
I still remember getting the Twitter message from Gerri while waiting to pick up my sons from 4K one November day: “Have you signed on with a publisher yet?”
My hands start shaking. Who’d want to publish me? A gazillion other fantasy writers are out there probably doing way better. I’m just…I’m just me.
Oh! Well… Huzzah, then!
Now you’re probably wondering A) How long is this nattering going to continue and B) isn’t the novel we’re talking about Fallen Princeborn: Stolen?
- A) I’m almost done.
- B) Publishing often takes unexpected turns.
Gerri asks me to send her a complete manuscript of Middler’s Pride. “Sure!” I start to type. Freeze. I’d been reworking a few key elements inside the story to better fit a series, and that reworking was nowhere near done.
But I can’t afford to lose this opportunity! If I say it’s not ready, she may say thanks and move on. Then who knows how long it’ll be before I get someone’s attention like this again?
I panic myself into a hyperventilating mess—always a smart state for driving preschoolers home from school—seeing all manners of defeat awaiting this exchange with Gerri. I should tell her to forget she ever saw my work. I should flee Wattpad. The internet. The…well you can’t get much more rural than a Wisconsin farming town, so I suppose this is flight enough.
Bo gets home from work and listens to my breathless, teary telling of the Twitter tale. He gets me some cocoa and sits me down. “Can you send her something else to buy you some time?” he asks.
“No. Well maybe. There’s my Fallen Princeborn story. But that’s not totally revised, either.”
Bo considers this. “True, but it’d probably keep her attention long enough so you can get that Middler thing done, right?”
I nod. Okay, that made sense. Distract with the giant green head projection that is Fallen Princeborn: Stolen while I frantically move Middler’s Pride things around behind the curtain. Gerri will also then see I’ve got more than one voice and style in me, which will hopefully make me sound more marketable. Okay. Okay okay. This all makes sense.
So I write Gerri a really, REALLY long rambling email about time and the importance of storytelling and hey, would you like to read this while you wait for me to fulfill your request?
I think only two days pass, maybe three. Bo’s doing what he can to get out of work early and handle the kids so I can finish Middler’s Pride sooner.
My phone beeps: an email from Gerri.
Oh no. She must be wondering what’s going on. She wants Middler now or never. Dammit, Jean, get the thing done!
I open the email.
“I just LOVE this story! The characters are so complete and so compelling! Do you have more Fallen Princeborn? I NEED to know what happens next!”
I beam. These characters I’ve known as long as my daughter—they’re loved by someone else. People I made from my own pain, anger, and yearnings have connected to someone else and made a home in someone else’s imagination.
Could these characters find homes in other readers’ imaginations, too? Only one way to find out. Now here we are.
What advice to aspiring authors on finding a publisher?
If you’re one of those with the “unsellable first novel” in a file somewhere, pull it out. Chances are enough time’s gone by that you can read it as the audience, not the creator.
Sure, the heroine sounds too nice for escaping from a personal hell, or the world’s rules don’t make sense, or the villain doesn’t have enough to do. Know what? Now’s the time to right those narrative wrongs. You know better now. You can hear the voice beneath the noise. You’ve only to dig it out.
Jean Lee on Reading Others’ Work
Who are some authors that you admire?
My favorite author of all universes is Diana Wynne Jones (affiliate link). She wrote fantasy for MG, YA, and adult, and…just, wow. I love her. I love that she pulls no punches about her awful childhood, her subtle-to-wacky humor, her dedication to studying the classics, and of course, her powerful storytelling. Other fantasy authors I dig include J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, Celine Kiernan, and Rick Riordan.
As I said earlier, I’m also a big fan of mysteries—Doyle and Christie, of course, but also Ellis Peters and John le Carré.
Have you read any good books lately?
Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is beautifully simplistic with its prose, sharply elegant as the tales near Ragnarok. Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury has some fascinating bits to it, and Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker is a well-paced suspense mystery exposing the depths one dysfunctional family can sink.
I also want to recommend Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones. She writes about life and craft in such a way that you’ll be laughing and scribbling notes all at once.
Anything else Bidwell Hollow readers should know about Jean Lee?
I like making playlists with music when I write. I’ve got a whole collection of composers I use on my site, too, because I’m always on the search for awesome soundtracks.
Never underestimate the creativity of a child. They will connect items you’d never connect, say things no grown would say. A simple trip to the park with my sons helped jumpstart the series Tales of the River Vine, a batch of short stories that are currently FREE on Amazon (affiliate link).
I eat peanut butter with a spoon. Skippy’s natural creamy with honey is the BEST.
I love hearing from readers, and I love interviewing other writers! Drop me a line at jeanleesworld at gmail dot com, and let’s talk!
Many thanks to the lovely folks at Bidwell Hollow for having me over. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
Thank you to Jean Lee for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out.