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Jill Elizabeth Nelson Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"I must write, whether I’m published or not, or something inside me will die."
-- Jill Elizabeth Nelson


C.J.: Have you always wanted to write, or did you discover your desire later in life?

Jill: My passion to become a novelist was born in the 6th grade. Every day at a certain time, my teacher, Mrs. Waltz, would pull up a stool and read aloud from the most wondrous books. Then one day I realized that I didn’t want to just ride on someone else’s imagination; I wanted to be in the driver’s seat and take readers on the journeys of my heart. That year, I wrote my first novel—a ridiculous mystery featuring a group of kid sleuths. I didn’t realize it at the time, but completing a book is a feat few would-be writers ever achieve. Many novels are started by people who think they might like to write a book some day, but only a tiny handful of manuscripts are ever finished. I look back on that process as a benchmark for my future as an author.

Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?

As an introvert, making and keeping people friends was a daunting task, so books were my best buddies throughout childhood. I gravitated toward the fantasies of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lloyd Alexander, as well as anything featuring horses. Walter Farley’s Black Stallion and others in that series were among my favorites. And, of course, I loved a good mystery. Encyclopedia Brown, and as I got a little older, Sherlock Holmes were among my favorite sleuths—maybe because I was often accused of having a vocabulary that required translation. My husband tells me that in the early months of our acquaintance, he didn’t understand half of what I said, but he nodded and smiled anyway. Twenty-five years of marriage to a farmer in a rural town has given me better communication skills, which is a good thing for my writing today.

Let’s talk about your To Catch a Thief series. Where did you get the idea to write a story involving art theft?

The series was born from a literal sleeping dream. I woke up tense in the middle of the night from a dream where I saw a woman take a painting from a wall and replace it with an identical one. She was dressed in dark clothing, and the room was covered in shadows. Very eerie. But that wasn’t the strangest part—she was taking the fake and putting the genuine back. And I knew that if she were caught, disaster would fall on her and countless innocents. After I woke up, I started asking questions. What kind of career could this woman have that would give her cat burglar skills without making her a crook? What situation would drive her to this act of reverse larceny? The answers gave me the framework for the first book in the series, Reluctant Burglar.

On your website you have a fun interactive quiz readers can take to test their art skill knowledge. Can you share with us some of the fascinating art facts you’ve dug up in your research?

Oh, goody, I love this question. I’ve got about an hour long talk I do for groups on this subject, but I’ll pick a few highlights. Let’s look at what happens to art after it’s stolen. Quite a bit winds up hidden by the thieves who discover that it’s harder to sell the goods than it was to steal it. High profile pieces are particularly difficult to sell, though some of it does disappear into the hands of private collectors and may not resurface for decades. A more common scenario is holding the art for ransom. Governments and private owners are eager to get the items back, and thieves can ask exorbitant sums for the return of cultural heritage. However, ransom is not often paid because it encourages more theft. On the other side of that coin, insurance companies offer rewards for the return of insured artwork. The sums are more modest, but some experts feel this practice borders on the paying of ransom. On a darker note, many experts feel that art is sometimes used by crime syndicates as collateral in drug and arms deals. I use this scenario in Reluctant Smuggler, the third book in the To Catch a Thief series, which is due out in October 2007. For more fun facts and art trivia, drop by my Stealth and Wealth page on my web site.

Reluctant Burglar by Jill Elizabeth NelsonWhat’s surprised you most in your research on art?

I’m astonished at how widespread art theft is internationally and the impact the loss has on cultures, something that is not widely reported in the media. We’re talking billions of dollars in losses annually. For instance, the main museum in Baghdad was looted during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the job appears to have been carried out in a systematic manner that indicates theft to order. In other words, the thieves had buyers lined up. Some speculate the money went to fund terrorist and insurgent organizations. Very few of the artifacts have been recovered.

What’s been the hardest part about writing the series?

Juggling a full time job with a full time writing career. Telling the stories has been a blast. Sure, there have been moments when I felt like I hit a wall and would never finish, but I’ve learned to work through those times on faith. The Lord has never failed to show me how to put the pieces together. He’s my Holy Ghost-writer. To Him be the glory!

I read this quote on your website: “I write romantic suspense for people who enjoy a fast-paced adventure with more meat on its bones than just a slick plot.” Could you expand on that a little bit?

I write in a genre that must pull readers along from page to page without pausing to indulge literary soul-searching. However, I tend to layer my stories with subplots, and the characters have internal issues that must be resolved in order for the external problems to wind up satisfactorily. This is not so unusual, but I also add the faith element. Most, though not all, novels written in the secular arena leave this facet out altogether. I find that omission untrue to real life. Everyone has spiritual beliefs of some kind, and to ignore that aspect of humanity or to gloss it over with a few flippant, inconclusive comments results in characters with their deepest parts missing. Unfortunately, many readers don’t even notice, which says a lot about their spiritual condition. My books try to change that—perhaps awaken some hunger by wrapping up truth in an entertaining package.

Why do you write fiction?

Because that’s what I love most to read. Stories impact my heart in ways nothing else can. Jesus knew a central truth about human nature—story is an effective vehicle to carry a message to the human heart. Parables were his favorite teaching tool. Stories challenge people to discern lessons for themselves, which more often leads to life-changing understanding than bald statements of fact. I have written and published quite a bit of nonfiction in the form of articles and essays, but fiction has always been my first love.

Do you ever find it challenging to head to your keyboard every day? What do you do when the words don’t seem to come?

Writing is a discipline. It’s hard work. That’s why so many manuscripts sit unfinished. I often find it difficult to shut out the other demands of life to sit down and get words on the page, but the drive ultimately comes from within. Yes, deadlines do crack the whip, but the need to write comes from the heart. I must write, whether I’m published or not, or something inside me would die. I think any serious author will say the same thing. And when the words don’t flow easily, you squeeze one syllable in front of the other until the walls crumble and you see the way ahead.

Are there any authors or books you consistently turn to for inspiration?Reluctant Runaway by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

The Bible is my bedrock for wisdom and understanding of the realities behind our natural world and insight into human nature. But there are many authors I admire. In my answer to the second question, I mentioned a few that inspired me in my early years. More recently, I’ve learned tons of craft from writers like Brandilyn Collins and Randall Ingermanson. For sheer genius of plotting and characterization, Liz Curtis Higgs is stellar. Francine Rivers wows me with her emotional resonance. I read her classic, Redeeming Love, about six years ago, and it bowled me over. I declared before God that one day I would write for the publishing house that had the Godly guts to print that book—Multnomah Publishers. Guess what? God honored that desire, and Multnomah is the publisher for the To Catch a Thief series.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started writing?

Where do I begin? I think I would have liked to understand word count limitations of the publishing business. The manuscript I first tried to sell was 150,000 words—about 50,000 words longer than a publisher cares to look at because of printing costs and shelf space limitations of retailers. Of course, there are some things I’m glad I didn’t know, or I would have quit before I started—like how hard it is to break into print as a novelist.

Of all your characters, who’s your favorite and why?

I dearly love Desi and Tony, the main characters in my To Catch a Thief series, but I have to say my favorite character to write about is Garritt of Greenwood, the swashbuckling lad from my impossibly long fantasy novel mentioned above. He’s such a good fellow, despite all the bitterness and confusion he battles. And he’s a bottom-of-the-barrel underdog, the kind of hero readers love to see triumph. By the way, Kingmaker is unpublished. Anyone out there interested?

What kind of story would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?

I’d like to write something with the impact of Redeeming Love that remains a best-selling classic from year to year. Only the Lord knows how many people have been ministered to by that single work of art. Yes, fiction is art.

What’s next for you?

Whatever my publisher and I agree on. I’ve completed the three contracted novels in the To Catch a Thief series. I’d love to continue, but that will depend on sales figures and reader response. If you’re a fan of Desi and Tony, and would like to see more of them, let Multnomah know. My editor has requested plot summaries for more To Catch a Thief and any other story ideas I have floating around in my head, so we’ll see what pans out.

Jill Elizabeth NelsonWho is Jill Elizabeth Nelson?

My first and only marriage is still going strong after twenty-five years. We have four children who have pretty much flown the coop. By day I masquerade as secretary to the CEO of a health care corporation and as housing manager for a senior apartment complex. By night I throw off my mask of conformity and turn into a wild and crazy writer who can hardly wait to jot down all the cool things my characters are telling me, so I can share them with my readers. I enjoy living in a rural Minnesota community because I despise the lines and traffic in big cities. I love getting reader mail. Please send me some at jnelson@jillelizabethnelson.com.

What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

If you ever need to bribe me, don’t send chocolate. I’ll take dill pickle chips or sunflower seeds. Strange for a female not to adore chocolate, I know.

When I laugh so hard I can scarcely breathe, I sound like Mutley from the old Dastardly and Mutley cartoons. My family rolls their eyes and says, “Here comes Mutley.” Then they start laughing—at me, not with me.

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Reading (duh!); camping with my husband and any of the kids that can come along; grilling and eating grilled food; watching a clean, entertaining DVD

What have you eaten in the last 24 hours? (Come on, be honest!)

Too much. Is that honest enough?

Breakfast: Bran Flakes and grapefruit juice
Mid-morning snack: honey roasted peanuts and green tea
Noon lunch: chili dog and lettuce salad
Supper: baked chicken, garlic mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, pear jello, apple pie

Is it any wonder I’m fluffy?

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Eggs, cheese, and skim milk

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

An Irish Cream cappuccino

What are you currently reading?

Cyndy Salzmann’s Crime and Clutter
Brandilyn Collins’ Violet Dawn
Colleen Coble’s Fire Dancer

What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?

See all my kids walking close to the Lord
Move into the home of my dreams

What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?

Maire Brennan’s Celtic praise CD—Whisper to the Wild Waters

Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

Please drop by my web site and enter the contest mentioned earlier in this interview. I give away an autographed book every month. Oh, and I’m really excited about the March release of Reluctant Runaway, Book Two in the series. Reluctant Burglar was well-received by reviewers, but some are saying Runaway is better. (I agree, but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone I said so.)

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.