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Neta Jackson Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"We all need God’s grace, and I want both my unbelieving readers and the been-a-Christian-all-my-life readers to truly know that as they walk through the story with my characters, because there is such freedom in admitting we need Jesus!" --Neta Jackson


Neta Jackson's award-winning Yada books have sold more than 400,000 copies and are spawning prayer groups across the country. She and her husband, Dave, are also an award-winning writing team, best known for the Trailblazer Books--a 40-volume series of historical fiction about great Christian heroes with 1.5 million in sales--and Hero Tales: A Family Treasury of True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes (vols 1-4). They live in the Chicago metropolitan area, where the Yada stories are set.

C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Neta: As a kid, I was crazy about horses and loved to draw and write stories about my “fantasy life” out on a big ranch in the wide-open spaces. I did this for fun, but when I was a senior in high school, my English teachers submitted one of my short stories to Scholastic Magazine’s Writing Awards contest—and to everyone’s shock, “The Sacrifice” (about a puma) won First Place in the Short Story category! For the first time, I caught a vision that I was a good writer and people might even want to read what I wrote! I used my prize money to buy a turquoise Olivetti portable typewriter and went off to college with just one goal: to become a writer.

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

My mother was a school librarian! So yes, books were a BIG part of our family life. We didn’t have a TV, so I always had my nose in a book. Fairy tales, animal stories (especially horse stories), Greek myths, autobiographies . . . you name it, I read it. I was especially impressed by Mary O’Hara and her “My Friend Flicka” series (“Thunderhead” and “Green Grass of Wyoming”) because these were full-length novels about a kid with complicated family relationships—i.e. they felt like “grownup” novels to me, not just a book for kids. C.S. Lewis and Madeline L’Engle were authors like that too—writing books that were enjoyed by both young people AND adults. Years later, when my husband and I were writing the Trailblazer series of historical fiction for kids about great Christian heroes, we didn’t write “down” to the kids—just straightforward short novels that could be enjoyed by both kids and adults. (I love the fact that even though my Yada Yada novels are written for adult women, some of my readers are as young as 13 and others well into their 80s! I have many multi-generational fans—grandma, mom, and daughters. How cool is that?!).

Your latest fictional endeavor has been the women’s fiction Yada Yada Prayer Group series, and the spin off series Yada Yada House of Hope. Talk to us a little bit about what originally inspired you to start writing these books. I hear your husband Dave gave you a bit of a push? :)

Dave and I were praying about “what’s next” after the Trailblazer series (we’d completed 40 titles in that series and decided it was time to move on!). I’d just finished a children’s picture book (Grandma Aggie and the Bless You Bike Ride) and had several other “Grandma Aggie” books I wanted to write . . . but one morning I woke up and Dave wasn’t in the bed. (I’m always the first one up.) I found a note on the kitchen table saying he had an idea for a novel and he’d gone for a walk with the tape recorder . . . when he came back he said, “Now you go for a walk and listen to my idea—because you’d have to write it!” A women’s prayer group met in our home at this time—a multi-cultural group of women as delightfully different from one another as a drawer full of mismatched socks!—and Dave was impressed by the impact of this group on me, and the many amazing stories of answered prayer. I’d never written a full-length novel by myself, so I was terrified by the idea. But we brainstormed a storyline, I wrote the prologue and first couple chapters, and sent off my proposal to about ten publishers. Within two weeks Integrity Publishing called and wanted the book! This had never happened to us before. I was thinking just one novel—but that shows how naïve I was, thinking I could put 12 feisty women in a single novel and expect them to stay there (ha ha). Even though the idea was inspired by a real prayer group, and some of my characters were inspired by real people, the characters quickly became their own personalities with their own stories (fiction) . . . and the rest, I guess you’d say, is history!

What would you say was the hardest part transitioning from writing books for children to writing books for adult women?

Two things. (1) We had a rep as a writing team (“DaveandNetaJackson,” practically joined at the hip) and as writers of children’s books. Nobody knew who “Neta Jackson” was. And our primary publisher had tracked us as “writers for children” and didn’t seem interested in proposals from us for adult novels. (2) The length of the book! Our children’s novels were about 28,000 words, whereas my contract for Yada Yada specified 80,000 to 100,000 words! I panicked, “I’ll never do this!” But my dear hubby did everything from cook to clean to shop for groceries to give me time to write—he really believed in me and this story, and encouraged me every step of the way. When I finished that first book, I could hardly believe it. I had actually written a full-length novel! Whew! Now I was ready to go back to the “Grandma Aggie” picture books . . . but Integrity called and wanted another Yada Yada . . . and another . . . and another. I’m still in a daze that in the past eight years I’ve written TEN adult novels. (I just finished the manuscript for Book 3 in the House of Hope series, and am ready to begin Book 4.) Never would’ve imagined it. But I’ve learned that if I give Jesus what I have—my “five loaves and two fish,” just like the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus—He tends to multiply it.

One of the things your readers love about this series are the recipes! Do they all come from your personal recipe box, or did you tap friends for theirs too?

A lot of them come from our own recipe box, but of course some come from our friends from other cultures, too. Dave had a blast trying out all the recipes for the “Party Edition” of the Yada Yada novels—he’s an excellent cook, by the way. Every wife should be so lucky!

Care to share one with us that perhaps didn’t make it into a book? :)

OK, here’s one . . .

Flo's Mustard Potato Salad

Florida says, “What's with all this fancy-dancy salad stuff? When ya gonna throw some chicken on the grill, give me a good ol' mustardy potato salad ta go with it! Oh, yeah, an' some watermelon.”

9 cups cubed red potatoes (about 3 pounds)
1 large sweet onion, diced
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup sweet pickle relish or 3 sweet pickles finely diced
4 hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. cider vinegar
3 Tbs. prepared mustard
Paprika

Place potatoes in kettle, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Cook for 8 minutes or until tender but not mushy. Drain, cover with cold water for 8-10 minutes. Drain again, thoroughly, and place in a large bowl. Add onion, celery, pickles, and eggs. Toss gently.

Separately, combine the mayonnaise, parsley, salt, pepper, sugar, vinegar, and mustard. Mix thoroughly and pour over the potatoes. Stir carefully so as not to mash the potatoes. Sprinkle with paprika, cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Serves 10

Your novels feature a diverse group of women from all walks of life. How important do you think it is for Christians to seek out friendships with those who are completely different from themselves?

It’s so natural to gravitate to people pretty much like ourselves. (Admittedly, there are plenty of differences among people “just like us,” so it’s comforting to have some basic cultural things in common.) But unfortunately, the church is still one of the most divided institutions in our society! Not just racially, but culturally, and economically, and denominationally, too. And yet, Jesus said God’s house was to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” I meditated on I Corinthians 12 for a long time—and realized that in describing the church as the “Body of Christ” with all its different parts making up one entity, the apostle Paul wasn’t just talking about “different gifts” (preaching, teaching, serving, etc. etc.). But he also talked about differences in social/economic status (“slave and free”) and differences in culture (“Jews and Greeks/Gentiles”). But the thing that really spoke to me is when that chapter says that the different parts of “the Body” need each other. Do we realize how much we need the parts of Christ’s body that are different from us? I think most churches today recognize that other denominations/cultures are part of the worldwide Church, but I don’t think many realize how much we need one another.

When I first began worshiping and studying the Bible with women from different racial groups, cultural backgrounds, worship styles, I thought I was doing something I “ought” to do and patted myself on the back. But it wasn’t long until I began to realize how much I was learning from these sisters, how my own faith was both challenged and enriched, how much I had to look again at aspects of faith I’d simply taken for granted. I hadn’t realized how much I truly needed the other parts of the Body of Christ (sort of like the hand not realizing how much it needs the elbow and knee and foot to fully function in the way God created the human body). I am so grateful for what these sisters and brothers from other cultures and church experiences have contributed to my own faith walk, helping my faith in Jesus to come alive like never before.

If you could say one thing to the church in general about racial or ethnic issues, what would you say?

See the above! And do yourself a favor. Take your family to visit other churches and worship with them. Open your heart and ask, “What is God doing in this place?” But don’t stop there. Invite people from other cultures and races to your home, put their feet under your table, and break bread together. Listen. Laugh. Play. Worship. We might as well get a taste of what heaven will be like! (big grin)

You have said, “Forgiveness is the heartbeat of being a Christian.” Could you expound on that thought and how it pertains to your fiction writing?

God’s forgiveness and amazing grace are what distinguish Christianity from all other religions, most of which are based on “works” or a list of obligations. All of our “goodness” can’t even begin to bring us close to a holy God. Only God’s mercy and forgiveness bridge that gap . . . and as forgiven people, we need to be quick to forgive others who fail us, who let us down, who make mistakes, who sin against us. Because unforgiveness, resentment, and hurt feelings are some of Satan’s favorite tricks, making us think we have a “right” to be angry or upset, because after all, we’re not at fault here! But Satan knows that if we aren’t willing to forgive others, our hearts become locked from receiving God’s forgiveness.

When I’m writing, I try hard to not simplify my characters into “good guys” and “bad guys.” All my characters are flawed in some way because the truth is, we’re all sinners, even the “good people.” We all need God’s grace, and I want both my unbelieving readers and the been-a-Christian-all-my-life readers to truly know that as they walk through the story with my characters, because there is such freedom in admitting we need Jesus! I think that’s one reason the Yada Yada novels appeal to so many readers, because there’s hope for everyone—from the drug addict to the church addict! God wants to free us from our ugly sins and our self-righteousness, so that we can live in His forgiveness and share that forgiveness with others. “Freely we have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

Many readers still know you best from your co-authoring with Dave of the Trailblazer series for children. Which historical figure was your favorite to write about and why?

Oh my, that would be hard to choose, because we learned so much from each of the men and women we wrote about. But I loved learning about Mary McLeod Bethune, who started a school for girls, the children of railroad workers in Florida. I come from a family of teachers, so I loved her philosophy of teaching: The Hands, the Head, and the Heart. Over the door of her school (which I had the privilege of visiting in Daytona, FL) was a sign on both sides. On the outside it said, “ENTER TO LEARN.” On the inside it said: “DEPART TO SERVE.” She was one amazing woman.

Any plans to return to writing for children or perhaps the YA market?

I’d love to do more writing for children (still have all those Grandma Aggie stories in my noggin), but . . . who knows???

Of all your books, fiction or nonfiction, what is your all-time favorite?

If I had to choose, it would probably be Book #2 in the Yada Yada Prayer Group series: The Yada Yada Prayer Group GETS DOWN. Because it is about forgiveness—many different layers of forgiveness, including asking forgiveness for the sins of the past committed by others (a very biblical concept, by the way, but one that’s hard to swallow).

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

A novel (fiction) based on the sometimes funny, sometimes pathetic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes weird, but ultimately the blessing of “growing up born again.” A sort of “novelized memoir” of my very sheltered childhood growing up as the daughter of a Christian school principal and having a wonderfully crazy “best friend” with whom I got into many scrapes! (grin) I even have a title for it! (But I’m not saying.)

I hear you’re a big gospel music fan. Who are some of your favorite artists, and do you often find yourself listening to music as you write?

Love Donnie McClurkin, Israel Houghton and New Breed, Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Kurt Carr, Clint Brown, Kirk Franklin, Richard Smallwood . . . oh dear, there’s so many! Yes, my husband and I listen to a lot of music as we write, but we vary it a lot. Everything from gospel to reggae to guitar to country to folk to island to golden oldies!

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?

I’m usually eager to get to work (except around the holidays—I wish I had more time to just have fun with the grandkids instead of trying to meet a deadline!). But when the words don’t come . . . I fill out interviews like this (ha ha) or answer my e-mail! But if I get stuck, I usually go for a walk with my husband and we brainstorm what should happen next in my story. We do this for each other—one of the beauties of being a “writing couple.”

Where is your favorite place to write?

Next to our upstairs office, which has a picture window looking out over our neighborhood houses and trees (today they’re covered with snow), with my husband at the desk next to mine, the music is playing, and the cat is sleeping in his little box under my desk . . . my favorite place to write is a little retreat house in Michigan (owned by friends of ours) called Beech Tree, on a screened in porch overlooking a small, very quiet lake. However, I don’t get there very often, so when I do, it’s a real treat.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?

The best “award” you can receive for your writing is a reader letter saying, “Your book changed my life.” Reader letters are THE best reward an author can ever receive. You’ve touched a life. They’ve taken time to write to you. Answer it!

What’s next for you?

Book #4 in the Yada Yada House of Hope series: I Go to the Rock. Unanswered question: “Is Philip redeemable?????”

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

Life is such a gift. Look for God’s gifts in the everyday and the ordinary. Be God’s gift to someone today by giving them a smile, an encouragement, a hug. Don’t take anything for granted. Be grateful for each person God has brought into your life. Tell them so. Tell God so, too.

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

I’m a grandma 8 times over! And I can still stand on my head.

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

Inviting neighbors & new friends to come for supper . . . watching movies with my hubby . . . working on my family photo albums . . . playing games with my grandkids . . . playing Scrabble and other board games . . . growing indoor and outdoor flowers . . . filling the bird feeder and enjoying the cardinals in the winter . . . reading in bed . . . walking 2 miles 4x a week with my sistah-girlfriend . . . going out to breakfast once a week (for 20 years now!) with my other girlfriend . . .

What did you eat for breakfast this morning?

Cream of Wheat hot cereal with brown sugar and yogurt and soy milk, plus whole wheat toast and OJ.

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Yogurt; Brownberry Natural Wheat bread (Catherine Clark’s original recipe); leftovers (especially soup—we often make a big pot and eat it for lunch several days in a row).

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

One Awake teabag in a biggy (grande?) cup. Or the occasional decaf mocha as a treat.

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

Going to Africa—either Malawi or South Africa.

When was the last time you cried?

Can’t remember. But the last time I laughed until I had a bellyache was last week.

Three words that best describe you:

Positive. Faithful. Hospitable.

What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?

“Christmas Around the World.

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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.