Today on the blog, I am very excited to welcome Tilia Klebenov Jacobs, author of ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ and ‘Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Cafe’.
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. When Tilia is not writing she is teaching (aka “getting paid for bossing people around.”) She has taught middle school, high school, and college; currently she teaches writing to prison inmates, and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published to critical acclaim. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles.
Welcome, Tilia. Tell us a little bit about you…
I’m a former park naturalist who got an advanced degree in theology in order to teach English.
As an undergraduate I double-majored in Religion and English with a concentration in creative writing. Even at the time I called it pre-unemployment; and sure enough, graduating in the depths of the first Bush recession with a liberal arts degree turned out to be a first-class ticket to the world of temping. But while I answered phones and typed by day, I volunteered at my local nature center evenings and weekends in the hopes that if I hung out long enough they would start to pay me. And indeed, so it came to pass.
Eventually I landed a permanent job with the Fairfax County Park Authority in Northern Virginia, working with possibly the loveliest set of people ever underpaid to do a worthwhile job. But after a few years I grew restless. I wanted to have more long-term impact on kids, more than just whatever a school group could absorb in a field trip. So I headed off to Harvard Divinity School, which allowed me to earn a Master of Theological Studies concurrently with a secondary school teaching certification. I graduated and spent a number of years teaching seventh grade, then college. Nowadays I teach prison inmates and write in the spare time I carve out of the week.
Your inspiration for Second Helpings?
A few years ago, my husband and I were out dancing. As I circulated through the room, a gentleman came up and asked me to dance, and I said yes. As the music started we realized we knew each other: he was one of my former students from a medium-security prison where I teach writing.
Well, it turns out he’s a good dancer. Afterwards I found myself thinking about what his life might be like. He seemed to be alone, which made me think he was probably looking for someone, since most of us are; and I suddenly wondered, “When is the right time in the dating process to tell someone you’re out on parole?” Thus was born Emet First, baker at the Serve You Right Café, who is about to have his first date in a decade—then finds he’s being framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place is a thriller, which is a different genre to Second Helpings. Which do you prefer writing?
The question of genre is, well, questionable. I’ve come to think of it as more of a marketing tool than an aid to composition: more “What shelf does this book go on?” than “What kind of story am I writing?” Most good books fit multiple genres.
I will say that both of my books deal with crimes and their aftermaths, because I find it’s a lot easier to get a story going if someone breaks the rules. That being said, think for a moment how many classics are crime stories. To Kill a Mockingbird centers on a rape trial; Macbeth is about a regicide, homicide, and a mass murder; The Great Gatsby concludes with a series of violent deaths. In each case, crime is the engine that drives the plot or at least concludes it, yet none of these works is usually considered crime fiction.
I think it’s best for writers to lay aside the question of genre and write the story they love the most in the best way they can. Writing a book will probably take a long time, and is unlikely to make much money, if any at all. (Sorry, aspiring writers; I tell it like it is.) So you might as well love what you’re doing. Love your story, love your characters, love the magical turns of phrase you stumble across that capture them so well. Later, someone else can figure out what category your magnum opus belongs in.
What are your favourite genres to read?
Despite my blithe dismissal of genre, I have a soft spot for crime fiction. The good guy always wins, the bad guy is always discovered or caught. It’s an optimistic genre, and I find it very satisfying.
That being said, I love good writing wherever I can find it, which happily is many places. Right now I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Uckridge by P.G. Wodehouse. Before that I read Kindness Goes Unpunished, a Western set in Philadelphia (you read that right) by Craig Johnson, and a self-help book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up by Marie Kondo. They were all really good, and I’m happy to have made their acquaintance.
Do you read inside your genre or out when writing? Where and when do you write?
Writers know that their own writing will soon start to sound like whatever they read the most of, so when I’m writing I tailor my reading for what I want to accomplish. If I feel the need for startling, lyrical descriptions, I dip into Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen or almost anything by Ray Bradbury. Right now I’m working on a short story that isn’t quite funny enough, so I have a stack of P.G. Wodehouse to help me out. If I can’t write funny after an infusion of Wodehouse, it’s time to hang up the keyboard and call it quits.
My writing time is dictated by my kids’ schedules. They go to Hebrew school twice a week, so for two hours on Wednesday and two and a half on Sunday mornings, I write. On Thursdays they stay late after school for various activities, so that’s my long day. I sometimes get four or five solid hours in on Thursdays.
I will occasionally carve out other times to write, but those are the ones that are sacred to me. I don’t plan other activities for those hours: I don’t work out or make doctors’ appointments. Those are my times to write, and I stick to them.
Are you a planner or a pantser?
Such a planner! I outline my novels chapter by chapter, and my short stories by plot point. I write character bios describing how old each person is, where he or she lives, who his or her family and friends are, and what each one wants and why he or she can’t get it. I describe their dramatic needs for each phase of the story. I really love this process, because it means I’m fully immersed in the story before I start. I never have to worry about what my characters will do or say, because even if they start mouthing off or run off with the plot, I know where the story is going.
One of the great advantages of plotting is that you don’t have to worry about a little thing called writer’s block. If the well of inspiration is dry one day, so what? Look at your outline and you’ll know what happens next. Write something, anything, to contribute to the story. It doesn’t have to be great, especially not in the first draft. But if you don’t have an outline, you may very well find that you have no clue what happens next; and you may be tempted to use this as an excuse not to write that day, or the next. This is why I think writer’s block is often a symptom of a lack of preparation. Map out your course, and you’ll know where you’re headed. It’s as simple as that.
I outlined my answer to this question, by the way.
Do you do any research? If so, any sites or sources you care to share?
I love research: the more I know, the better my story becomes. And although I use Google as much as the next guy, I’ve found there’s nothing like going directly to an expert in the field and asking her directly. When I decided that Mercey in Second Helpings was a physical therapist, I interviewed my neighbor, who is a PT. This added a lot to the character, because my neighbor truly loves her job—and as a result, so does Mercey. Whenever one of my characters commits a crime, I call a lawyer friend and ask him exactly how deep a mess the person is in. (It’s usually worse than I thought.) For Wrong Place, Wrong Time I interviewed a Marine who had served in Iraq on an anti-terrorism detail, and I promise you that what he had to say was nothing like what I had read online, even in very reputable sources. And when I was researching FBI procedures for the same book, I interviewed two FBI agents from the Major Crimes/Violent Offenders Unit. All of these people were very happy to share their expertise with me, and it was, simply put, bags of fun.
The moral of the story is, it’s amazing what you can get if you ask nicely.
Your author heroes?
For a red-hot combination of talent, technique, and overall awesomeness as a person, it’s hard to beat J.K. Rowling. I own all of her books, starting with Harry Potter but also embracing her adult fiction. As wonderful as the books are, I find her truly impressive in nonliterary ways as well: she is no longer the richest woman in the world, which is due to the fact that she has given away so much money to charitable causes, especially for children. How can I not love that?
P.G. Wodehouse is another demigod. You’d have to be suspicious of anyone who doesn’t like Wodehouse.
On this side of the pond, I love Robert B. Parker for his banter and his philosophical musings, and for just plain old knowing how to move a plot along. There are many more, but those are the first ones who spring to mind.
Thank you, Tilia, for joining me on the blog today!