Nicole Disney interviews Jen Jensen:
I’m thrilled to have the chance to interview the super talented Jen Jensen today about her debut novel, Jamis Bachman, Ghost Hunter. It was a joy reading this eerie ghost story with its notes of mystery and ample intellectual depth. Thanks for joining me today, Jen!
I love that your main character, Jamis Bachman, ruminates many times on the afterlife, consciousness, dimensions, her own psychology, and the idea of self. It would have been believable for a professional ghost hunter to have entrenched beliefs about what, exactly, a ghost is, but I enjoyed and related to her more as the person with an open mind and searching heart you created. What was your process for developing Jamis? Was it natural or challenging to get inside her skin?
I’ve had Jamis with me since I was nineteen years old. She emerged in my consciousness on a drive from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, Virginia, where I lived at that time. I know her so well I didn’t give her voice the depth I gave other aspects of the story in my first round with the manuscript. I took for granted that readers would know her as well as I do. So, when I revised before publication, that was my focus. To give Jamis all that I knew of her.
It was so natural to infuse her voice with a sense of wonder and awe. For her to be the heroine I want her to be, in this book, and subsequent stories, I don’t think she can have entrenched ideas about what is happening. I like to say, “I have no idea WTF is going on.” And I gave that to Jamis. The universe is always expanding, evolving, changing. We are at our best when we do the same. Fixed ideas prohibit growth. And this story is about growth, evolution, and living beyond trauma. It’s a meditation on how people carry on after loss. The various ways they cope. For anyone who has experienced loss, trauma, or mental illness (and that’s most of us), carrying on requires trespass into unknown territory. Healing requires an open heart.
One of the things I loved about this novel was that there were so many types of storytelling to enjoy. You have thoroughly unnerving poltergeist activity, a compelling investigation to uncover the truth of a murder, dreamy journeys into the structure of reality, and a sweet emerging romance, all without the book ever feeling crowded. How did you find a balance between these elements? Did it come out the way you originally pictured it?
The first time through I nailed the mystery and the poltergeist. I also nailed the flashback romance. What got missed was the contemporary romance between Jamis and Johnna. During revisions, I really focused on that. So it was like I got to nail the mechanics of the story, and then almost a year later, during revision, my editor pointed out the opportunity between Jamis and Johnna, and with so much distance between me and the manuscript, I saw it and took a week to build that into the story so it flowed. I was so pleased with how tender their story was when I finished, and I love spending time with them as I’m writing book two.
I couldn’t have imaged it would turn out so well. When I finished, and sent off the final copy, all I could say was, “Well, I hope it doesn’t suck.”
You have a fairly large cast of supporting characters who are interwoven in their relationships, history, and wounds. Do you have a favorite character besides Jamis? What makes that person special to you? (Mine is Sapphire. Who doesn’t love a feisty computer science PhD who’s ready both to confront a poltergeist and phish military software off the dark web?)
Sapphire seems to be a fan favorite! I’m hearing from people they love her. She’s so awesome and snarky and brilliant, and an equal partner for Jamis.
Emma is my favorite character. I actually think this is Emma’s story, and she’s just letting us read it mostly through Jamis. She’s at the heart of everything, trying to help Carmen and her kids move forward, and she does this, with Stephanie’s help, by calling Jamis to Sage Creek. It also helps Jamis heal. Emma emerged in my consciousness right after my beloved maternal grandmother passed away. I loved her so much, and I feel like I projected that affection and love into Emma, and I think that is what people respond to when they read her story.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this story? What came easily?
I’ve tried to write this story for twenty years! The problem was always me. Isn’t that how it goes though? If I am emotionally out of balance, my words get stuck. I was also deeply preoccupied by a highly responsible job in biotech, so I didn’t have the emotional energy available to write it. It took a lot of therapy, hard work, and risk to get myself to a place where I could write stories. Once I got there, the story flowed, the connections sang, and here we are.
Pretty much every writer has heard Faulkner’s quote that in writing, you must kill all your darlings. Were there any darlings you particularly loved that couldn’t be part of your story?
Believe it or not, everyone I began with had a place in the story! Originally, I was going to make Tess a bit more eccentric, but I felt like it was too much.
Of course I have to ask, have you ever personally experienced anything you’d call paranormal?
Yes! So many times. I’m obsessed with the unexplained, from ancient aliens, alternate archaeology, and the paranormal.
When I was about seven years old, I woke in bed and rolled over to see a man standing in the doorway. He was so tall he filled it. He wore a long dark coat and a hat. He just stood there and stared at me. I was so afraid, so I closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was still there. I think then I realized he wasn’t going to hurt me, so I sat up in bed and we looked at each other. I felt a flush of warmth spread through my body, calmed, and went back to sleep. When I woke, I knew it was not a dream. Right after that, everything in my life changed. A few years later, right before more change, though I didn’t know it then, I saw him again. I felt the same shock, followed by calm.
My paternal Grandma came to stay with us a little while after that and she brought photo albums. I sat by her side as she showed me my ancestors. Then I saw my ghost. It was the brother of my Grandpa, a tall silent man who wore a long coat and a hat. I told my Grandma Jensen about him and she said he’d been looking after me. She believed me immediately. She told me the ones we love never really leave us, and that somehow, somewhere, we carry on. And even if we don’t, we’d forget about it in a hundred years anyway.
I didn’t see him for years until the spring of 2017, standing in the doorway of my old Victorian in New Jersey, right before another wave of intense change and loss swept into my life.
I also had a scary encounter in a hotel in Jerome, the woods of Virginia, and in my own bathroom just recently! But I’ll save those for later. My partner says nothing ghostly ever happened to her before she met me—and now she’s always looking over her shoulder. I think we see what we believe we will see. And if we’re closed off to the idea of the paranormal, we’ll never experience it. Open heart, open mind.
Do you hide any author signatures, bread crumbs, or tips of the hat within your stories? If so, any hints?
I did! I mention a character in my upcoming novel, Politics of Love, in this book. I’ll leave it at that.
Do you have any eccentric habits or rituals around your writing?
I write with music on. I can get really obsessive and tend to work in bursts rather than with discipline. I also need solid sleep before writing.
What gets you in touch with your creative side?
Music and unstructured time and space. I need time in front of me without any obligation, whether professional or personal.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on Jamis book two right now. I’m also working on another series with an anti-heroine as the lead, quite unlike the noble Jamis.
Thanks so much for your beautiful story and for sharing with us how it came to be. I’m looking forward to all your future projects!
Thanks for reading my book, your kind words, and taking the time to chat with me! I appreciate it.