Behind the Pen with Penelope Janu

I am delighted to welcome Penelope Janu to Behind the Pen today. Over to you Penelope…

When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
After I finished school, I took a conventional path, going to university to study history and law, travelling for a year, working as a solicitor and legal academic, doing post-graduate study in law, and having six children. I never had the time to write, or so I thought. My start in creative writing (compared with my other writing—involving thousands of footnotes!) came via a masters degree. I’d never studied writing or literature—even though I’d always wanted to put the stories in my mind into a more permanent form—so going back to uni was, for me, a means by which I thought I might be able to write something that someone might want to read. Some of my early career skills were transferable—once I’d started writing, I wrote in a very disciplined way. And I guess that’s why, within five years, I’d completed three manuscripts.

What is your favourite character from one of your novels and why?
I have a soft spot for many of my characters, particularly my female leads, but a contemporary character called Miles Franklin, the protagonist in On the Same Page, is definitely one of my favourites. Miles is burdened with parents who are great literary writers, but snobby and pretentious. Miles is, like most writers, very widely read, but her greatest reading love is historical romance novels, and she writes in this genre as well. There is a clash in her personal and professional lives (as a lawyer and a writer) because her parents, and others in her life, lack respect for what she does. Miles is a shy and private person, but has a warm and generous spirit and never loses sight of what will make her happy. She gets involved in many situations that are difficult for her, but manages to pick herself up—just in time to be challenged all over again.

How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write, to what it is today?
I’m still very much learning and developing as a writer—I don’t think that will ever stop, and I don’t want it to.

Is this in line with your initial expectations?
I always imagined writing would give me joy, and I was right about that. And I wanted to be traditionally published, and have been fortunate to have achieved that ambition relatively early in my writing career. Even so, there are marketing and other commitments that come with being a writer, and it took me a while to come to terms with those. I spent so many years teaching my children the perils of social media, and now I am very much a part of it! On the bright side, I’ve made some really good friends, and learnt a great deal from other writers at all different stages in their writing careers. Finding out about the publishing side of the industry has also been a steep learning curve. It is a business (who would have thought?) and I am a brand (I think …)

Are you balancing a different career with your writing?
I now only work one or two days in a legal space. The rest is of the time I write. Most of my children have moved out of home, so preparing six sets of school lunches is a thing of the past, much as I miss many aspects of having little ones under my feet.

How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
When I write, just like when I read, I am generally impervious to anything going on around me. Often to my family’s consternation! But even though I have more time now, leaving my house and giving myself a deadline generally works well for me—particularly when I’m writing a scene that I’m struggling with. I think there is a lot of truth to the adage that you can’t edit a blank page. Often words that are ultimately deleted, lead me to the place I really need to go, and there is no way I would have made it there without them. But I have to sit down and write those words in the first place!

How much planning do you do? Do you plan/plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progresses? In terms of characters, are they already a firm picture in your mind before you start writing or do they develop a personality of their own as the story progresses?
I plan very little at the start of a novel—except for giving my characters occupations that interest me and that I’d like to find out more about. My character in On the Right Track, Golden Saunders, is a speech pathologist, and this character was inspired by a friend who uses animal therapy in the treatment of her young patients. I’m terribly slow in writing the first few chapters of every novel, because I feel I can’t go any further until I have a very clear idea of the character’s voice. The speechie aspect led to some wonderful ideas with this book in terms of ways in which the two main characters communicate (and fail to communicate!) with each other. Once I have the voice, I generally have the character as well. Writing organically like this does have its challenges—on the one hand I am excited to find out what will happen as the story progresses. On the other hand I become anxious that I don’t quite know what will happen, and I’m tens of thousands of words into the book!

How would you describe On the Same Page if you could only use five words?
Books, writing, friendship and love.

How much research do you do? How do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
It’s important to get the facts right. Yet … the facts shouldn’t get in the way of the story. It is a balancing act! In my first novel, In At The Deep End, the characters Harriet and Per share the same surnames as Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, who led the first and second teams to the South Pole. Although the early expeditions were used in the book as a means to explore differences in approach to a modern day dilemma—global warming—I did a great deal of research on the South Pole expeditions, and on climate science. In my academic life, I’d taught a unit called ‘The Global Legal Regulation of Climate Change.’ I knew something about the law, I researched the science, but I had to communicate these elements in a way that would appeal to readers (and Harriet and Per had to fall in love as well!).

Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
Definitely all over the place—and often in my head. A couple of years ago I hiked 320km across England (from the west coast to the east) with my husband and a few friends, and we only got back from walking around Mt Blanc (200km of quite steep climbing!) taking in France, Switzerland and Italy, a few weeks ago. I thought through a lot of plot points while trudging up the hills. At home I do a lot of coastal and bush walking, which I love.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
Although I read a lot, I enjoy going to the theatre and draw a lot of inspiration from that. Maybe it’s because theatre is a different way of telling a story? And the dialogue is so fundamental. I was in the front row of a performance of Romeo and Juliet while writing a crucial scene in On the Same Page, and Mercutio’s lines about hazel eyes, as well as many other Shakespearian lines, became a really important part of that book!

I also draw a lot of inspiration from my family. The intensity (for want of a better word) of having six children within nine years, in the early years, and even now that they are mostly in adulthood, is something that challenged and inspired me. My eldest daughter, Pip, is an English teacher and doing a PhD in 18th Century literature (I call her my literary go-to girl). Her breadth of knowledge and passion for literature is inspiring. My second daughter, Tamsin, has written five middle grade fiction novels (she was twenty-two when her first novel was picked up by Scholastic) and she inspires me too. My two boys and husband don’t read romance, but they are unendingly respectful and encouraging that I write in this genre. I have two left feet, but my two youngest daughters were very sporty and competed at State and National level. They are now lawyers and they inspire me too!

You can wear one pair of shoes for the rest of your life. What type are they and what colour?
They would definitely be boots, either riding boots or hiking boots, well made and in dark brown leather. When I leave the house in boots I’ll usually come home tired and grubby, but invigorated by the natural beauty of the environment, and the wildlife that inhabits it. When I wear boots there’s adventure ahead!

On the Same Page

Sometimes a girl just has to do what’s in her heart …

By day Miles Franklin, named after the famous author, is a successful lawyer. But by night she writes historical romance novels under the pen name Emma Browning. When Miles’s assistant covertly enters her boss’s novel in one of Australia’s biggest literary awards—and it wins—Miles’s perfectly ordered world is torn apart.
Lars Kristensen smells a rat. As the CEO of Iconic International, the company publishing Miles’s prize-winning novel, he’s determined to meet the author and uncover her true identity.
But Miles is equally determined to protect her privacy—and to keep writing—even if it means mastering pole dancing, and choreographing a love scene in the back of a horse-drawn carriage … Well, she is a romance writer, after all.
Miles has the grit to keep her secret, but Lars has the smouldering looks and arrogance of any romantic hero she has ever imagined.
Hmm. Sometimes a girl just has to turn the page …

On the Same Page will be available in bookshops in Australia and New Zealand from 1 December 2018.

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12 thoughts on “Behind the Pen with Penelope Janu

  1. Thank you for having me on Behind the Pen, Therese. And Claire and Helen, thank you so much for your comments. The best thing about writing for me is when readers like, or relate to, the characters and situations I’ve written about. And I guess that’s because those characters, and the problems they are trying to resolve, become so real to me. There’s so much pain and heartache in the world which is why I love writing romance – it’s not easy for characters to overcome differences and fall in love, but I find it makes me genuinely happy when they do!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hello Sue. There are so many wonderful books to enjoy, aren’t there? And sometimes books come along at exactly the right time – my lovely gran would have said – ‘it was meant to be.’ I hope you enjoy a lot of reading time over Christmas – it is a time of year I love, including for just this very reason!

    Liked by 1 person

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