What did you read growing up?
Basically, whatever was available. We always lived in small towns, most of which didn’t have libraries. When I was in third grade, we moved to Robeline, Louisiana, and they had one. It was only about the size of my living room, but it was packed with books, and I thought I’d found Wonderland. There were five kids in our family at that time. Mama would line us up like little ducks and lead us the whole two blocks across town to the library. Each of us would check out the limit—five books. We’d walk home, get lost in the books for three days, then walk back to the library for more. Mama also read to us from the books she took out for herself, and she was so expressive, it was like watching a play. She was a sucker for stories and so was I.
In grade school, I read a lot of Mark Twain, every biography I could get my hands on, all the Albert Payson Terhune dog books. (Actually, I had a bit of a crush on Terhune because of his rugged good looks and his sense of respect in dealing with animals. He shaped my thinking in that area.) By the time I got to high school, we were living in towns-without-libraries again, so I read whatever my older sister was reading. That ranged from Frank Yerby to Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Gibran to everything in between.
When did you start writing?
In the third grade. We had to write a story with our 20 spelling words. I had these two little baby chickens, Chip and Dale, in a box with a heat lamp, on the back porch, and I wrote about them. When the teacher read it to the class, I took that to mean that I had talent. As soon as somebody tells you that you're good at something, that becomes a part of your identity.
Actually, I’d have become a writer, anyway, even without that incident. My mother wrote poetry and songs and stories, and my father could spin a tale like nobody else. There would have been no way for me to resist the lure of storytelling.
My first writing job was a fashion column for a little dress shop in Hope, Arkansas – which is kind of wildly funny, since I’m one of the least fashion-savvy females on the planet. Somehow I faked it. After that, I wrote greeting card copy – the crazy stuff, not the hearts and flowers – selling to Hallmark and several other companies. That was great fun, partly because I couldn’t turn it off. I’d be in the shower and some line would come, and I’d jump out and go write it down. It blew me away to realize that I could make $200 for maybe a dozen words. Of course, I wrote plenty of words that nobody wanted, so it wasn’t exactly steady income.
I was in my thirties before I started selling articles to magazines, and I hit forty before I sold my first screenplay. Now I’m sixty-six, and my first novel has been out all of nine months. To say I’m a consistently late bloomer is something of an understatement.
How did The Homecoming of Samuel Lake emerge?
I started writing about the Moses family back in the nineties. I wrote about a hundred pages and had to quit to meet a screenwriting deadline. Then I had cancer and didn’t have any screenwriting work for three years. I don’t why I didn’t finish the book then. I was trying desperately to get work but nobody would hire me—I think they were afraid I’d die in the middle of a project. I wasn’t really sick—I just had cancer. I had surgery and one round of chemo, but I didn’t feel sick, except from the chemo. I finally started getting work and all of a sudden I had deadlines again, so I still didn’t go back to the book.
Then this friend of mine, Charlie Anderson, poked and prodded. We would just be talking and he’d say “How are ya?” and I’d say “I’m great but I don’t know how I’m gonna handle things,” and he’d say, “Finish the book!”
I’d say, “You don’t understand, I haven’t paid my light bill,” and he’d say, “Finish the book!”
“But I’ve got to make money now and I’m thinking I might . . . ”
“Finish the book!”
No matter what I said, he said, “Finish the book!”
“You don’t understand what that’ll take . . . ”
“Finish the book!”
So I sat down to write some pages and the story just started coming in waves. Every night I’d send Charlie my pages, and the next morning, he and his partner, Leon Joosen, would call and encourage me, and I’d write some more. This was about a three-month stretch where I wrote the rest of the book. Somewhere in there I started also sending it to a producer I particularly respected (Lynn Hendee), and she did the same thing. I did nothing but write, six days a week. Friday night would come, and I’d think, “Oh, no! I’m going to have to be away from it for a whole day?”
Talk about the differences between writing a screenplay and a novel.
The main difference is that a screenplay is a distillation. You can’t really get inside the characters’ heads and tell their thoughts. But in a book you can explore the deepest feelings. Another difference is that a screenplay involves collaborating with other people. I didn’t realize at first that in writing for film, there would be so many other participants who would be adding their experience and their passions . . .
And their “notes”?
Yes! When you go into a meeting, there’s this lovely little moment when they tell you every positive thing about your work, and it’s like getting your back scratched. Then comes, “We do have a few notes.” The great thing is that these people really know story, and their notes are generally helpful, so you learn to appreciate that part of the process. Still, in writing the novel, I was free to let the story reveal itself to me, and I’ve never felt anything to compare with that. It was like spending every day dancing, without ever getting tired.
When you’re writing a screenplay do you picture the actors?
When I’m working on assignment and I know who is being considered for a part, or there’s somebody already attached, I can picture that person while I’m working and it gives more layers to the character. But I usually think of people I know and borrow their mannerisms, their quirks.
Tell us about your work habits.
I get up before dawn almost every day. I make coffee and go to the computer. I sit down, and I work. I take a break when I need more coffee or food, or it’s time to let the dogs in (or out) – again – or go to the barn to feed the horses and the goats. If I went to the store or out to dinner, it would take me out of the writing, so I don’t do it. Doing things on the farm lets me stay in my world.
In the evening, I stop when I feel like it’s time. Several years back, my signal to stop would be when I couldn’t sit up any longer, but that’s changed. I may write until 5 or 6 p.m., or I may go much later, but I quit when what I’ve written for the day feels right. The next morning, I get up and read the previous day’s work and tweak a few things. By the time I’ve done all that, the story is flowing again, and I dive in. I don’t work on Saturday.
Because I believe it’s the true Sabbath and I can’t imagine that any bunch of bishops had the authority to change it. For me, the Sabbath is an incredibly loving gift we’ve been given – a chance to rest and think about what’s real and what matters. I feel that the things we can’t see are infinitely more powerful than the things we can, but we tend to forget that when we’re busy slaying dragons. I don’t slay dragons on Saturday.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read. Write. Read. Write. If you are moved by someone else’s work, study it to discover how they made the magic. What did they do with words that made you feel like flying, or moved you to tears? How did they pace a scene so that you were breathless with anticipation – or wracked with dread? What kind of pictures did they paint? What did they do to surprise you? Because, Baby, you’re romancing your reader with every word, every line. And when a romance runs out of surprises, the thrill is gone.
Come up with characters who have flaws, and let them fall on their faces every so often. Don’t make things too easy for them. It’s not important for the hero to win. What’s important is how good a fight did he put up? How much did he grow in the process? We read stories because we want to see someone go up against seemingly unbeatable odds, whether that’s solving a crime, or winning someone’s heart. “Once upon a time they lived happily ever after” is not a story.
Know the world you’re writing about. Know your characters, right down to how they smell and how they take care of their fingernails. And if they’ve got grime under their nails, know where it came from. Know your people so well that you can literally hear their voices in your head, and don’t diddle around with those voices when you’re putting them on paper.
Don’t worry about being a writer. Be a storyteller. When you read my stuff, I don’t want it to sound like I’m writing, I want it to sound like I’m talking to you.
Jenny Wingfield is a screenwriter/novelist who lives on a farm surrounded by a slew of horses, dogs, cats and dairy goats. Her first film was The Man In The Moon. Her first novel is The Homecoming of Samuel Lake. Her passions include animal rescue, watercolor painting and organic gardening. She makes a mean lasagna.