Class act: An Interview With Jana Petken

Jana Petken is a talented, serious writer who currently resides in Spain. She chose a hard genre when she became a writer and it’s only fair that we give her a great interview. What makes her stand above other writers? That’s an easy one to answer– she writes as though she is watching a movie– her words are moving pictures. I think you will love her interview and her book…

The Guardian of Secrets is serious historical fiction…

A historical family saga spanning four generations, from 1912, Kent, England, to Spain and its 1936–39 civil war. Celia and Ernesto’s two sons march under opposing banners, whilst their daughters take different paths, one to the Catholic Church and the other to the battlefields, and in the shadow of war, an evil ghost from the past watches and waits for an opportunity to destroy the entire family. In exile, Celia and Ernesto can only wait and pray for their children and their safe return home..

How did you get interested in writing this particular genre and what does a would-be writer in your category need to know?

History has always held my interest. I love the subject and the wonderful opportunities that history can bring to the imagination. This is not a genre that I chose; I believe it chose me. To be able to read about kings, queens, wars, politicians, villains and heroes throughout history, is a wonderful experience.

I can only give this advice to, would be, historical writers: When you tell a story, make your backdrop real. Take the time to investigate and research the facts surrounding your characters, such as locations, names, dates or events.

What kind of research did you do and where do you begin your research?

The research for, The Guardian of Secrets, was a long, painstaking job. I had no internet and spent my time in libraries, buying reference books, watching documentaries, visiting battle sites in Spain, studying the lives of nuns, interviewing Civil War survivors, and a couple of soldiers from opposing sides – I said painstaking but it was a wonderful experience.
I still prefer researching the old fashioned way, rather than using Google or Wikipedia. They are both great tools but they don’t bring me the same sense of “Learning” as reference books.

What’s a typical writing day like for you? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?

I walk my dog. I write early in the morning, I drink a lot of tea, I never set myself goals and I have been known to fall asleep in front of the computer in mid sentence. I work for as long as I am still able to focus. When my mind goes blank and the words start jumping, I go out and clear my mind with a coffee and a chat with friends.

What is the hardest part of writing and how do you get past the difficulties involved?

The hardest part for me is probably starting a new project. The first page, the first sentence, and the first chapter can be challenging, especially for me, because I don’t outline the story –I tend to hope and pray that inspiration will guide me through unknown territory and lead me to my destination.

What’s the best thing about being an author?

The best thing about being an author, for me, is that I meet such interesting people throughout history, even though they never actually existed but instead, grew from my own mind. I love the way writing can bring an idea to life; a person that is loved or hated with a passion. I love to hear my readers tell me how much they cried or laughed. I love to be able to shock and get away with it – fingers crossed!

What’s the worst thing about being an author and does the good outweigh the bad?

Writing can consume you. It can make everything else fade into insignificance. Housework, shopping for groceries, and socialising can fall by the wayside. Then there are the sleepless nights, thinking about what a character is going to do next, and of course, daily attempts to stand out somehow, somewhere, in order to advance in this profession.

Being an author, especially a debut author, is an uphill struggle and can be frustrating at times. But the passion and joy of creating words far outweighs any negative aspects.

Do writers get better with practice? Or is writing just a talent you have from day one?

I believe that both apply. Writing is a talent, a passion, and a creative gift – Having said that, I also believe that the learning process is perpetually on- going. Writing demands hard work, time, and effort. Today, anyone can publish a finished manuscript. It is open season for writers. I ask myself: What defines a good writer? The book industry may say that it is an author with a traditional publishing deal. I disagree. A good writer is someone who has written a good, readable, and enjoyable novel.

How important is grammar to the writer? Should content come first or perfect grammar?

Content should come first. The mind should be free to write – But grammar is very important and I, personally, would never submit a book without first employing a reputable editor to make sure that nuances like grammar, punctuation, and format are of the highest standard possible.

Did you spend much time refreshing your knowledge of grammar and writing rules?

No, and this is probably why it took me so long to write, The Guardian of Secrets. I learned the hard way. I was a novice and ignorant, if truth be told. I believe that after the fourth or fifth draft, I saw the error of my ways, and corrected them. But, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe we ever stop learning.

Should writers worry about bad reviews? Are reviews really that important?

I can’t speak for anyone else. Some writers are more sensitive than others. Bad reviews can be upsetting. It feels as though someone is insulting your child. There are also people who enjoy making mischief and will give bad ratings and reviews without having read a book – Please allow me to tell you a personal story about this issue, one day.

Reviews are very important, especially honest ones. They are a gift, much appreciated, and necessary for any writer; established or relatively unknown.

Is a great story or a great cover more important?

The cover should catch the reader’s eye. Covers are valuable assets but the story is the most important element- a cover can always be changed.

Do you believe there is any “one” set genre or can books be in multiple genres?

Writers can write in various genres. Some writers are defined by their, genre, whilst others are more open to change. It depends how comfortable the writer feels and how interested he or she is in a particular genre.
At this moment in time, I’m enjoying writing, historical fiction. I have so many ideas for new stories, still trapped in my imagination waiting to get out, so I don’t see me switching genres in the foreseeable future – although I am writing a story, set in the future, which I dabble with every now and again, just for fun.

Are intelligent reads better reads?

I think that all depends on what the reader is looking for. There are so many different genres now. I can’t keep up. I like a book that entertains me but it also has to teach me something.

How do you write dialogue? Do you act it out as you write it? Is it based on the way you would say something?

Laughs – As a child, I dreamed of being an actress. I have achieved this ambition through writing. I feel sorry for my neighbours I really do because when I go into character, I really go for it. I think that if you say something and it doesn’t sound believable to your ears, it’s not going to be believable on paper. Take, Joseph Dobbs from, The Guardian of Secrets? He is the most despicable man, in every way, yet he’s my favourite character in the book – what can I say, I loved playing him. Does that make me a bad person?

Are your characters ever based on you?

No, not yet.

How do you know if something is right for your book? Do you rewrite until you get the perfect mix?

Sometimes a chapter just falls into place. Other times it looks clumsy and unrealistic, so yes, I usually take it down to the bones and rewrite. If it still looks bad I scrub it altogether because it means it’s not meant to be there. Other authors may disagree but that’s how I feel about it.

How does it feel to hold a finished manuscript in your hand?

It feels as though you have just created a story, which hopefully will have an impact on a person’s life, in some way or another. It’s a wonderful but scary moment; like setting a bird free and hoping it will survive and flourish in that big Amazon jungle.

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