Created January 30, 2024 by Laurent Sewell
Our Member Interview Series continues with Britta Jensen, both author and editor of the recently released collection of YA/adult short stories: MIXED BAG OF TRICKS, Murasaki Press, 2023. Majority profits of this book benefit the nonprofit Writers’ League of Texas. Britta’s debut YA novel, ELOIA BORN, won the 2019 Writer’s League of Texas YA Discovery Prize, and was followed by the sequel, HIRANA’S WAR. She has also written a novella: GHOSTS OF YOKOSUKA, as well as short stories and plays, including “WHY NOT OPHELIA,” published in THE CASTLE OF HORROR ANTHOLOGY Vol 6. Britta holds an MA in Teaching of English Literature from Columbia University and taught creative writing for 17 years. Now, she mentors writers and edits books with The Writing Consultancy and Yellowbird Editors.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I grew up primarily in Yokosuka, Japan. Living in a seaside, coastal city with lots of local legends, especially ghost stories, meant that I was always writing down new stories, ideas, and poetry. Life was fast-paced there, but the ocean brought a sense of peace and respite to the hustle and bustle. The ocean was practically my backyard in Maborikaigan, where my family lived for most of the 12 years we were in Japan. I would walk by the seawall, sit on top, if the weather was good, and write in my notebook almost everyday.
I think being a foreigner in a lot of places: Japan, South Korea and Germany meant that I wanted to create worlds, in my writing, that reflected an amalgam of those places, especially in ELOIA BORN, HIRANA’S WAR and my current novel in progress: ORPHAN PODS. I wanted kids around the world to feel, like me, that there is a story where there's a place for them regardless of culture, language or belief system. Whereas, GHOSTS OF YOKOSUKA, my little novelette, hits closer to my experiences growing up in Yokosuka.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later?
I always wanted to write and have a job that let me do that. Being an author sounded scary, unpredictable and really hard. But, when I started writing stories for my students in NYC as a "treat" after we did the mandatory reading and they were digging it, I thought "what if I just give this a go?" It didn't hurt to try! It was my students in South Korea, who had read some of my stories that were laying around the classroom, who encouraged me to really pursue it and stop revising the same 60 pages in my first novel about time traveling teens.
I promised my student Jacob (who was 17 at the time) that when I arrived in Germany for my first year of teaching there, I would finish the novel and write back to him that it was done! That promise really fueled me (I never like letting kids down). Of course, the book was total rubbish, but the process was golden. I wrote three more books in close succession the two years following and spent every spare penny I had going to London (from Germany) for writing courses, publishing seminars, workshops, festivals, etc... Those seven years of going back and forth to London really helped me to become a better author, editor and reader. I understood, especially in attending the Faber Academy, that I am an author, regardless of acclaim, renown, or publishing credits.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Lots of very silly behavior. I love to dance, make up songs, and entertain my overworked tailor husband with my antics. (Most of the time he at least pretends to be amused). If we go in chronological order: they'd see me getting up and having breakfast with my husband while I sing and dance around our tiny kitchen, taking a walk after he's left for work, doing meditation and journaling (on a good day), planning out my day (hour by hour) in my planner before diving into working on the two novels I'm working on (ORPHAN PODS and BONES OF OUR ANCESTORS) before moving onto editing client work, meeting with authors or my team, eating lunch, and closing out the day with cleaning up my office before I head out to either yoga, dance class, or a cafe to read, before coming home to make dinner with my husband.
He might ask me to help him with his business e-mails after dinner, and I'll tell him that I'll only help him if we dance one Brazilian Zouk dance. (He knows I'm more motivated if I get to dance Brazilian Zouk first!) I try to head to bed early, but both of us tend to get distracted with the news of the day, and so it isn't until 10-11pm that we drop off to bed. I think the most astonishing thing for folks watching would be that they'd probably marvel that I live and work in such a small space and still manage to be very happy!
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I'm really fortunate to work full-time as an editor and writing coach. As a result of that, I find that the advice I'm giving other authors I have to give myself. If I'm telling them to invest more time in their work, I ask myself: "Are you also doing this?" I used to work full-time teaching and part-time editing and that gave my life a different rhythm, especially because I was salaried.
Now, all my work is project-based and it means that I take deadlines super seriously, especially with my own work. However, it also means I need more "unicorn time" because my whole work life is about writing and publishing. I need to dance and walk more to de-stress.
My husband is from Mexico and has this lovely, huge family back home that I love visiting. They really inspire me and have such wonderful stories that help to refill my creative wells. Having a multi-lingual household (English, Spanish, German, Japanese) also means that occasionally my husband and I speak to each other in made-up alien languages and it means that I get a lot of writing inspiration from those interactions between us, family, and friends.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
Oh boy...I don't really feel like I've accomplished much, to be honest! I still feel like that is yet to come. However, I think I'm proudest of editing over 100 authors' work, of keeping on track with trying to publish 10 pieces of my writing before 50 (I've got 7/10, which includes both short stories and novels). There are five more years till I'm 50, so I'd love if the two novels I'm working on get published.
The thing I'm most proud of is that I don't give up. I've had a lot of life adversity and the wonderful women in my life have propped me up to keep going and keep pursuing my dream of continuing to write and publish. I'm proud of them keeping me going and of our community in Austin welcoming me when I was fresh off the boat from Germany!
What surprises you about the creative life?
It requires a lot more TLC than I realized when I wasn't self employed! As I get older, I realize we need more brain space, more room to play, more childlike expressions of wonder, and time to just be bored and let those ideas sink in. We have to give ourselves time for creativity like we give ourselves time to wash dishes, do the laundry, take care of kids, pay bills. You need to keep your creative well full so that you've got the energy to pursue those dreams and keep them bright in front of you. Creativity is not optional, it's essential.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
I hope they'll find some sweet romances, adventure in the pursuit of finding identity, as well as some humor and unusual creatures! In ELOIA BORN and HIRANA’S WAR, I've got some fun animals, especially the ulsos and gwynbees that add great color to the ongoing story. In my upcoming books, I think there's more humor and even more good love stories and friendships! Most of all, I hope that readers will leave my books feeling hopeful and uplifted, like they aren't alone in what they're going through in their own lives.
What youthful inspiration from your students really sticks with you?
"Miss Jensen, would we really do that?" When I'm unsure if something is age appropriate, I put it through that test from the many kids I taught. Another bit of youthful inspiration, "Miss J, you just gotta get jazzy with it." I feel like this last bit of inspiration is great when I'm in a creative blackhole b/c I haven't let myself play with the work enough.
This analogy derives from your blog: Character is to Mince as Sentence Structure is to Granular. How so?
With characters, you've got to feel them and their emotions, go deep, wade in the oceans of their particular story world. Mincing involves really slicing deep, investigating, getting curious, but most of all, inhabiting their skin fully. Whereas, the sentence structure (or granular stuff) comes MUCH later, when you feel like you can practically do a one-person show as your character.
To write or not to write; that is the question! Have an answer?
Always writing! Even when you don't feel like it, or your hands aren't quite working. That's what otter.ai is for! Give yourself room for what your voice hasn't said yet, even if you're simply doing a voice recording.
Would you choose to ride a snail or a thoroughbred?
Snails are much cuter, but when I want to go somewhere I do tend to like going fast. Can I have the option of the cute snail for the fantasy journey and the thoroughbred for when I need to zoom?