Jane Kirkpatrick and I met at one of her book signings. I had just returned from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where I spent some time with Oliver Red Cloud and his daughter Nancy. For seventeen years, Jane lived part-time on the Warm Springs Indian reservation where she engaged in social work for Native Americans who lived there. As a result, we struck up conversations over the years either by email or in person. I not only admire her work, I admire her as a person. She’s just a genuine, caring individual who is also one heck of a writer. Here are some questions I had for her about her work on the Warm Springs Indian reservation and her writing:
1) First, how did you end up on the Warm Springs Indian reservation and what was that like for you?
My first job, after I received my master’s in Clinical Social Work from the University of Wisconsin, was in Oregon where I worked for three different county mental health clinics. One was in Jefferson County where the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is located. Once a month I traveled there to work with families who had children with disabilities. I loved being there--loved both the landscape and the people. I only worked there for a year, and then eventually became the director of the mental health clinic in Bend. Eight years later, I left that job to “homestead” along the lower John Day River. The location was very remote, so I assumed I’d never be able to work on the reservation again. It was a 2 hour 10 minute commute (when I drove the speed limit). But a year into our homestead adventure, I knew one of us needed a job. Fortunately, a letter from the director of mental health at Warm Springs arrived (we didn’t have a phone then). I was invited to help the clinic set up their Early Intervention program. The job was supposed to be only one day a week, for one year, but that soon turned into 3 days a week for 17 years. It was the most compelling and satisfying professional work I have ever done. Each day I was reminded that the way I saw the world wasn’t necessarily the only way to see the world. I learned something new every day and had experiences I never would have imagined possible, including helping to deliver a baby whom we now claim as a grandchild.
2) How did living in Warm Springs part-time inform your writing and storytelling? And what made you decide to begin writing in the first place?
Once I made the decision to leave my job as a mental health director and move with my husband to Rattlesnake and Rock Ranch, I worried about what I’d do there. It was 160 acres of 12 foot tall sagebrush, 7 miles from our mailbox and 11 miles from a paved road. My skills really weren’t compatible with digging a well, burying a phone line 7 miles long — twice because it didn’t work the first time. I read books about finding one’s purpose, about taking risks, etc. and one night, in desperation, I prayed out loud, “What will I do here?” I had visions of my husband and I killing each other and being dead for weeks before anyone found us. Well, I felt more than heard one word: “Write.” At the time, that was so far from any thought I'd ever had, but I took a class at the local community college where several of the assignments were published in national magazines like Private Pilot and Mother Earth News. I also published in newspapers like the Oregonian, so I was feeling pretty jazzed. Then once we got electricity, I wrote to family and friends about our adventures. One of our friends said that when she received my letters, she didn’t read them right away. Instead, she waited until after supper, turned off the TV and read them out loud because they seemed like a chapter in a book. I wondered then if I could write about our journey — not how to homestead — but how to follow your heart even when all who love you think you’ve lost your mind. That book became Homestead, my first book.
3) You are a prolific author who has put out dozens of published inspirational fiction and nonfiction books. When I write, I often find one kernel of an idea online that sparks my imagination and gets me thinking, “what if.” Where do you get the inspiration for the books you write?
I always search for an unanswered question like “How did that happen?” Or “I wonder why she was there?” Or “Where did she draw her strength from?” A physicist once said in answer to the question, “Do you have any advice for young people interested in physics?” “Tell them to find something strange and thoroughly explore it.” I think that’s what I do. I always think the story is about X, but when I finish it I sit back and say, “Oh, that’s why I was supposed to write that story,” so I’m always learning something about myself I didn’t know I needed to know.
4) People have different styles of writing. I am a “pantser,” as they call it. One who has an idea, knows approximately how the story will end, and understands story structure so I know what needs to happen at different points in the story. Oftentimes, I find amazing nuggets of information along the way that I hadn’t expected to find, so I leave myself open to those possibilities. My guess is that you have a more organized style of writing--that you are a “plotter,” one who spends time gathering the information and mapping out where you want the story to go ahead of time. How do you feel that helps you, and what is your feeling about the difference between a plotter and a pantser?
I have to say I’m a “planster” or a blend of both. Because I write primarily about actual historical people, I do tons of research to try to identify the important moments in their lives, asking myself “what did they desire?” Biography allows one to explore what a person did and when they did it. But fiction permits one to consider why did they do what they did and how might they have felt doing it? I create a timeline for the main character, have an idea of where I want the story to end, but more importantly, I’m answering three questions from Structuring your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald: What is my intention in this story? What is my attitude and what do I feel deeply about? Lastly, what is my purpose or how do I hope a reader will be changed by reading this story? The answers (which I try to define in only one sentence) guide me so the story takes me where it wants to go despite having plotted it.
5) How has the industry changed since you first started, and does the publisher still do much of the marketing, or are you expected to do more of your own marketing?
I got into writing in the mid 1980s and didn’t have an agent. Everything was done by query letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope, in order to receive an answer. It was very time consuming. Early on, to deal with the inevitable rejection, I started a practice. When I finished a piece and was feeling good about it, I’d make a list of 10 markets and when the rejections came back I’d wait 24 hours, read it over again once and send it to the next market on the list. I never got through all 10 before it was picked up. I don’t think it was because I was a great writer; it was because I kept the piece circulating until it found its home and did the marketing when I was feeling optimistic, so I always had a next step besides putting it in a drawer and never trying to get it published again. I joined writing organizations and attended writing conferences which are powerful places to find one’s tribe. That is still true today. My publishers have always been great marketing people, and I do a lot myself because my books are my babies and the publisher has many babies to promote. I market by hopefully giving readers of my books and newsletter (Story Sparks), and website (jkbooks.com
), something to encourage their days. I combine public speaking, my mental health background, and storytelling at events, bookstores and other places in an attempt to help my listeners find their own stories. Healing is an important part of all my stories. Covid-19 changed my contribution to marketing a great deal. But here’s the thing I tell writers of all genres: Listen to the story that calls to your heart and write that story. Don’t write for the market. Instead, write for yourself. In the end, you’ll not only find your readers, but you’ll discover things about yourself you never even knew.