Thursday, July 20, 2006

Q&A: JANEL RODRIGUEZ


Today, we check in with Janel Rodriguez, prolific author of several biographies and children's books. (She is also my sister-in-law. But please do not hold that against her.)

Her latest book is Meet Fulton Sheen: Beloved Preacher and Teacher of the Word (Servant Publications):

Fulton Sheen was a not-to-be-missed television evangelist during the 1950s. His weekly TV show, "Life Is Worth Living," was watched by millions. As this biography makes clear, Bishop Sheen was far more than a media personality. He was above all a priest with a single-minded determination to bring people to Christ. He introduced Catholics to the "hour of power," an hour of prayer daily before the Blessed Sacrament. His own life as an evangelist, writer, scholar, bishop and fundraiser flowed from this practice.

"In a very readable and attractive style, Janel Rodriguez presents the main stages of Archbishop Sheen's life and work while interweaving many personal incidents that bring out the true character of this great churchman. She presents Archbishop Sheen as he truly was: a rare but extraordinary blending of natural gifts and supernatural grace. Endowed with a keen intellect, Archbishop Sheen used it to become a gifted teacher, prolific writer and effective preacher."—Father Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R.
Janel is also working on a top-secret mystery series. (But forget I said anything.)

* * *

ARE YOU AN "ENTERTAINER" OR A "MINISTER"?
I am both. When writing a straight biography about an obviously saintly Christian figure and his spirituality (such as Fulton Sheen) I am more of a minister, yet I try to tell the story in an entertaining and fluid way and with a beginning, a middle and an end. If I am writing fiction for children, however, I tend to be more of an entertainer. Either way I am sincerely enthusiastic about my writing and subject matter and can only hope that enthusiasm comes through.

WHO ARE YOUR LITERARY INFLUENCES?
I love children's books, so a lot of my influences were writers of series fiction and British authors of classic books (like the Narnia series, books by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Noel Streitfield, etc., etc.)

I also loved the Trixie Belden Mystery Series and the Ginnie and Geneva books series and must admit that the mystery series I am working on now was definitely influenced by them!

I also love and pick up on the storytelling styles of television shows (I guess you can't call them "literary" influences, but): a good Little House on the Prairie, McLeod's Daughters or Xena episode can be just as influential on my writing because of the whole "show-don't-tell" aspect of TV, as well as the way the viewers, like readers, can emotionally identify with and become attached to characters we watch on a regular basis.

I am also influenced by the advice I have found in books on the art of writing books. A writer should never stop learning and should always strive to improve their craft.

WHO ARE YOUR SPIRITUAL INFLUENCES?
Well, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, of course ... and I would say the spirituality found in the Carmelite tradition: St. Teresa of Avila and many other Carmelite saints were prolific writers. Also, friends of mine -- especially Carmelite friars I grew up with in my parish, who were always so human and down-to-earth in their holiness.

I find that children have been a big influence on me as well. I have been a Sunday school teacher for 15 years and was a nanny for many years, too, and I have found that for me, God is easiest to see in children than anywhere else. They never fail to teach me or bring me closer to God. Last but not least, my parents, who from day one, shamelessly raised me in Christ.

WHAT IS THE BEST THING ANYONE SAID ABOUT ONE OF YOUR BOOKS?
I can never hear the phrase "it's well-written" enough -- gotta love that!

I was also amused the other day when a deeply spiritual friend said that when she read Meet Fulton Sheen, she kept thinking, "Oh, Janel will love this, I have to tell her about this" -- only to remember that I wrote it in the first place.

WHAT IS THE WORST THING ANYONE SAID ABOUT ONE OF YOUR BOOKS?
There were two. Both were about my first published book for children, a biography called Gloria Estefan. One was how I got the name of her school wrong. At the time, I was 24, and I didn't know that one school, for instance, could go by Miami University and a totally different school could go by the College of Miami. To me, "college" and "university" were synonyms. Sadly, the fact checker did not find this mistake and I learned my lesson the hard way. The reviewer of the book picked up on the mistake as she went to one of these schools and she was angry with the stupidity of the mistake.

Another reviewer criticized my choppy writing style in that book -- and was completely right: I had literally gone around chopping my sentences in half since I had been advised to keep my sentences short. So, while I came away admiring Gloria Estefan, I was not happy with my work on that book.

Happily, I did not take an ax to the sentences in my next book in the series, Nely Galan. I also consulted with Ms. Galan herself to check facts! I am much more careful now with my research (and Servant books, my publisher, is meticulous about that sort of thing. All authors citing from outside sources are asked to hand in their research and try to photocopy all passages they refer to or quote in their manuscripts so that they may be properly cited and credited -- which, in this day and age, is very, very wise!)

As much as the criticisms stung, however, I must admit that they helped me to improve as a writer!

HOW MANY BOOKS DO YOU READ A MONTH?
With a twin sister that works for a GIANT publishing company, I would have to say LOTS. :-D But they range from kids' books, to adult fiction (I love reading Indian Writers); books on writing (I cannot stress this enough -- I believe every writer should read books on writing to keep up their art); books for research purposes (depending on what writing project I am working on); books on spiritual topics; books by my brother-in-law -- (cough, cough).

WHAT ARE YOUR WRITING HABITS?
I am, um, a "night person." I like to start writing after 10 PM. This could mean 11. This could mean 12. I often end around 2AM. I try to write more than 1000 words a day. I have been doing rather well with this since January. Sometimes take a break of a block of days here and there, but since sometimes I write 1200 or 1500 or 2000 words a night -- even more sometimes (although rarely) in a sitting -- I can allow myself days off.

ARE YOU AN "OUTLINE" WRITER OR "MAKE IT UP AS YOU GO" WRITER?
Mostly make it up as I go. I have a general idea and just go. This is how I paint pictures as well (literally, I mean -- I'm an artist, too!) I sketch the faintest hint of a composition and then attack the canvas.

I have no patience in blocking out a painting or in plotting out a story. I watch it take shape and then come to understand it. I figure, hey, before this was a blank canvas/sheet of paper/computer screen. Now I've made it into something more. I can always build on it or tear it down afterwards, but better to have made it than to have just thought about making it.

However, I find that usually halfway through a book I am writing, my brain is ends up working so fast that I have to write down where my plotting ideas are going so that I don't lose them, and a sloppy half-outline finally emerges.

In the case of an assignment, such as the Sheen and JP II books, I have to write an outline and submit it to my editor before getting the go-ahead, so I am forced to outline. Since they are nonfiction, though, and about a life that has already been lived, it's not like I can plot "Oh, in my version, the pope DOESN'T get shot ...." (I am not Dan Brown). However, I can arrange vignettes in an attention-holding readable style, which is fun for me. With fiction, though, I prefer to surprise even myself.

ARE YOU A FULL-TIME NOVELIST?
No, but I would love to be. I work two part-time jobs cuz da bills gots ta gets paid, you hear what I'm sayin'?

WHAT IS YOUR DAY JOB?
One job is as a freelance editor (everything from line editing to restructuring, to explaining showing not telling, etc.); my other job is office work helping the manager of a famous jazz musician. Both jobs are with holy, God-fearing Christian women, so I can talk about Jesus during my day job which is such a blessing.

More Authors:
Q&A: CORNELIA READ (A Field of Darkness)
Q&A: TL HINES (Waking Lazarus)
Q&A: KATHRYN MACKEL (The Hidden)
Q&A: LORENA MCCOURTNEY (On The Run)
Q&A: MINDY STARNS CLARK (Blind Dates Can Be Murder)
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