Featured Women's Author
An Interview with Jeanne Ray
by Pam Kingsbury
At the recent "Southern Voices: Cross Roads & Common Threads" conference at the Hoover Public Library (Alabama), Jeanne Ray described becoming "the unwitting poster woman for change" in the last five years. Calling change "big and ambitious," she told the audience, "Until three years ago, when I started doing publicity for my books, the closest I came to public speaking was talking at the drive-up line Wendy's."
When Ray, who graduated from nursing school in 1958, started writing, the first question she asked herself was, "What do my heroines do for a living?" Describing her childhood with Depression Era parents as "both a cliché and understatement," Ray gave her parents credit for her work ethic. "If my parents had told me the 'Cinderella' story, Cinderella would have skipped the ball to take a typing test because she knew families always need two incomes."
After the publication of JULIE AND ROMEO and Step*Ball*Change, Ray found herself "writing like a maniac" on the novel that became Eat Cake (which is scheduled for publication in June 2003). Joking she wanted "to publish as many books as possible before editors discovered she's a nurse with a computer," Ray acknowledged writers have themes and the "job hang up" in each of her novels is the "literary equivalent of Charles Dickens."
Even though her books have been bestsellers, "In my dreams, I'm still a nurse. It sometimes takes a long time for the little pieces of ourselves to catch up with us."
Do you still work as a nurse? How do your dual careers play against one another?
I do still work as a nurse one day a week. I enjoy the relationships I have built up over the years, and value the grounding effect nursing has always had on me. I think my dual careers work hand in hand. I learn about life largely through my nursing and the writing allows me to record what I've learned.
How did you get into writing?
I have always written, but never with the intent of selling anything. I began Julie and Romeo because I thought someone should write a love story for people over sixty. When I had written about 150 pages, I showed it to my daughter, Ann (Patchett), who has a traditional writer's education. She liked what I had done and encouraged me to finish it. She also gave me editorial advice. Then when I had finished, Ann asked her own agent if she'd read the piece. It might have been easier to go for the MFA and skip having a talented daughter, but I wouldn't have it any other way!
What it's like having two writers in the family?
We love being able to "talk shop". It's wonderful, I think, for both of us.
You write about women "of a certain age" whose lives are in transit. Did you set out to write about the so-called "sandwich generation"?
I definitely chose to write about "sandwich generation" situations. Youth is wonderful, but we have a certain media overload. This "certain age" is a good time to be alive, vital, healthy, creative.
You've written three novels -- all sequel worthy. Is there any chance readers will see these families again?
I usually am a little tired of these people once I finish a book. But let's just say I still wonder how Julie and Romeo are doing every now and then.
One of the more interesting themes in American Literature is the ways people become families. Do you have any comments on the new American family?
I can only say that I agree entirely with you. Families, in all their many permutations, are fascinating. In nursing as well as in literature...... I just think family problems are peculiar and funny enough even when you're trying to be ethical.
How much research did you put into the books? The first one has florists, the second tap dancing, and the most recent, baking.
I know a family (as a nurse) who own and run a florist shop. They let me "hang out" and ask questions. I have a friend who was a tap dancer and I asked a lot of questions. I don't dance, but LOVE to watch. I do bake. I learned to bake with my mother, and baked with my daughters. I adore the scent of something wonderful in the oven. I love giving baked goods away.
Did you have any literary mentors? heroes or heroines?
Ann has certainly been my literary mentor. I have always read often and almost anything. Raymond Chandler taught me, as did Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh. Gabriel Garcia Marquez taught me. Shakespeare taught me.
Is there any question you've been dying for someone to ask that you'd like to answer here?
"What is it that thrills you most about your new career?"
It gives me the opportunity to demonstrate to others the importance of embracing change, trying something new, digging deep into themselves and looking for a talent they'd enjoy sharing. It allows me to give people hope about themselves by telling them what happened to me.
Books by Jeanne Ray
© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved