2019 November Author of the Month: JEANNE OATES ESTRIDGE

November is that month when we turn to the holidays, grateful for the good things in our lives and seeking opportunities to share that goodness with others. This day transcends race, color, religion, politics, and binds us together in thankfulness for the blessings we’ve been given. Speaking of the spiritual, this month’s author offers a tantalizing twist on the paranormal romance genre. Instead of werewolves or vampires, Jeanne Oates Estridge offers us demons. I must admit I was fascinated by this unusual approach to what is a fairly specific genre. So, join me as I explore her novels and her novel spin on love.

Janet Irvin: Hi, Jeanne! It’s good to have you with us this month. One of the most fascinating things to know about a writer is her writing journey. Can you share how you came to write your paranormal romance novels?

Jeanne Oates Estridge: When I was a kid, I loved “magical realism” stories. The best known ones today are the Harry Potter novels, but back in the 1960’s, there was an author named Edward Eager who wrote about everyday children who unexpectedly encountered magic, and how they dealt with it. They were fabulous. By the time I really got serious about writing (as in, studying it and learning the craft) I was more interested in writing for adults. So my books are like Edward Eager stories for adults.

J.I.: In The Demon Always Wins, your romantic character is a demon. What drew you to this unusual and original concept?

J.O.E.: I wanted to write a story with a lot of intensity but I didn’t want it to be about the heroine’s life being in danger. I also wanted a story that would defy readers to guess how it could possibly end with a happily ever after.

About that time, the preacher at our church gave a sermon on Job. If you know that story, Job was a pawn in a cosmic wager between God and Satan. Satan says Job is only faithful because God has given him everything—wealth, health, children. God insists that Job would be faithful to him no matter what, so they make a bet and Satan proceeds to take away everything—Job’s kids, his flocks, he winds up covered in boils. Things get so bad that one of Job’s friends says, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” After God wins the wager, he gives Job back everything he lost. But how could he return the children that were killed? According to the minister, God gave him replacement children. I remember thinking, “Good thing for him Job wasn’t a woman. A woman would never have accepted replacement children.”

Then lightning struck. What if God and Job decided to revisit that ancient wager with a modern woman as the pawn? And what if Satan sent a demon so irresistible no woman on Earth had a chance against him? But what if that woman had been trained to fight demons by grandparents who ran a demon-fighting ministry for fifty years? Suddenly I had my really intense story. And I was pretty sure most readers wouldn’t be able to guess how I was going to free a fallen angel from Hell, because I didn’t have the first clue myself. It took me two weeks of walking around in a fog, barely sleeping, before I came up with a solution.

J.I.: Your novels present an interesting mix of humor with serious religious topics. Did you plan this or did it evolve as the stories unfolded?

J.O.E.: I have a pretty dark sense of humor. When I sat down to write the first scene, I envisioned this clash-of-the-Titans kind of epic scene with thunder and lightning and stern figures orating, but what came out of my keyboard were a bunch of guys playing poker, smoking cigars and trash-talking each other. I kept going back and trying to get it to behave with no luck. Then I mentioned the problem I was having to a roomful of writers. They absolutely roared and said I had to keep it the way it was. That first scene kind of set the tone for the whole series.

J.I.: Publishing today offers a variety of options. Why did you choose to self-publish? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this path?

J.O.E.: When The Demon Always Wins won the Golden Heart® in 2015, which is the romance world’s top prize for unpublished fiction, the wave of sales of paranormal romance generated by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series had tapered off and New York was not acquiring much paranormal. I sent it out a few times but on top of being bad timing, it’s a very odd book. I didn’t get any nibbles. So my choices were: put it in a drawer and wait for another paranormal upcycle (and I’d still be waiting) or wade into self-publishing.

Advantages: You keep a much larger percentage of the revenue—70 or 80% for self-pub vs. about 10% for traditional. You get to choose your own editors and cover designers and have final say over your final product. You also control the marketing and advertising of your book.

Disadvantages: You have to pay for all of those services—or figure out how to do them yourself. The learning curve is steep and very time- and energy-consuming. Although publishers don’t invest as much in marketing as they once did, there’s still a floor for sales that they’d be able to procure for you by virtue of their name and their marketing machine that you’re not going to be able to replicate unless you already know a whole lot about book marketing, which I didn’t.

But, again on the upside, traditionally published romances get an initial push from their publishers, but only for about 90 days. The Demon Always Wins has been out for over a year and I’m still advertising it and making plans for how best to leverage it when the third book, The Demon Wore Stilettos, comes out next year.

J.I.: Your novel has garnered a number of awards. Have those accolades changed your writing life in any way?

J.O.E.: They feel really good when you win them, but they’re not really meaningful to the average reader and they don’t do much to increase sales. The first contest I ever won was the local humor division of the Erma Bombeck contest back in 2005. That summer I also won the Dayton Daily News Short Story contest. I remember telling some co-workers: “If you win one, it might be a fluke. But if you win two, that means you can really write.” So I guess that’s their greatest value—they offer validation to help you keep going when it would be easy to get discouraged and quit.

J.I.: You are a member of a romance writing group. What unique benefits does affiliation with such groups provide?

J.O.E.: I’m currently the president of Central Ohio Fiction Writers, the Columbus chapter of Romance Writers of America. That’s a great group that offers monthly presentations on writing craft and business topics. Their biggest value for me, personally, was being around people who were making a career of writing. That made me stop viewing it as a hobby and get serious.

I’m also a member of the Miami Valley Writers’ Network, a local group put together by romance author April Wilson. We meet monthly at the Centerville library just to talk informally about where we are in our journey and what’s working for us. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions and the more experienced authors provide answers for newer authors. Once or twice a year, April and some other writers do workshops on topics related to the business of writing. It’s a super supportive group.

J.I.: Do you have a writing regimen, a daily schedule? How do you balance that with the other demands of life?

J.O.E.: After I retired a couple of years ago from working at Sinclair, I had a really solid schedule—8 a.m. till at least noon every weekday. Then, at the end of May of this year, my husband retired, too. Now I’m regrouping and trying to work out a new schedule that allows us to spend more time together and still lets me write. I write later in the day than I used to and more on weekends when sports are on. I don’t have a large fan base yet, so it’s not like people are clamoring for the next book. Just recently, though, a few people have begun asking when the next demon book will be done. Which is very cool, but also adds pressure that wasn’t there before.

J.I.: What is the most exciting aspect of being a published writer?

J.O.E.: When I was in second grade, Mrs. Young handed out sheets of paper to the class and told us to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and to draw a picture. My picture was of me in a long dress, sitting at a typewriter. Today when I correspond with the people who subscribe to my newsletter, or I’m invited to a book-signing or to speak at a book club, it feels like I’ve gotten everything I ever dreamed of.

J.I.: You have a Master’s Certificate in Writing the Romance Novel. Can you tell us a little about that experience?

J.O.E.: Back in 2012, McDaniel College in Baltimore, with some help from romance legend Nora Roberts, decided to offer a post-graduate course in romance writing. They hired NYT Bestselling romance author Jenny Crusie to be the instructor. I had five failed novels stashed in drawers and notebooks around my house. I’d read only one of Jenny’s books at that time, but it was enough to tell me that she knew the stuff I needed to learn. And she was a former high school teacher, so she knew how to teach.

As for the course itself, it was crazy. Imagine being in an online class with thirty other women who are also writers, discussing a topic about which you are all supremely passionate—writing fiction. I would come home every night and sit down at my computer to read the equivalent of a novella in the discussion threads. I’d add my thoughts before falling into bed, exhausted. That went on for a year. It was overwhelming and terrifying and wonderful all at the same time.

She taught us the five-act structure, which was the puzzle piece I’d been missing. We also learned about theme and point-of-view and writing realistic dialogue and Aristotle’s unities and character arcs and a ton of other stuff I don’t even remember off the top of my head. With this knowledge it became possible to consistently produce stories that deserved the light of day.

J.I.: Do you see any change in direction for romance novelists in the future?

J.O.E.: The rise in self-publishing has had a profound impact on romance, maybe greater than in any other genre, because romance readers are so voracious. Many read multiple books a week, so the availability of $1, $2, or $3 romance novels is a huge savings for them. Big publishers who have a lot of infrastructure to maintain really can’t compete on price, which means they can no longer afford to gamble on a lot of unknown writers.

Because of this, one of the things I expect to see happen is that more and more publishers and agents will wait until writers prove that they can not only write a strong story but that they can also successfully market their work to consumers. We’ve already seen Big Five publishers signing people like Anna Todd, who wrote “After,” fan fiction based on One Direction’s Harry Styles, on her phone. After it accumulated 1.6 billion reads on Wattpad, she got a six-figure deal from Simon & Schuster. More recently, Scarlett Peckham, who won the 2018 Golden Heart® in the Historical category for her novel, The Duke I Tempted, about a masochistic duke who belongs to a London whipping club, self-published it with the help of her agent. It caught the attention of Sarah MacLean, bestselling romance author and columnist for the Washington Post. That, in turn, got NPR’s attention. Scarlett got a six-figure deal from Avon to write a series of three romances set in Georgian London.

J.I.: You have three novels in your series. What’s next for you?

J.O.E.: I have a Contemporary romance, working title Girl’s Best Friend, which is set in a hippie-dippy little town called Russet Springs. It’s on the women’s fiction end of the continuum. There’s lots of romance, but it’s also a story of a young woman learning just how far gratitude should take you when someone has been kind to you. I’ve asked my editor, Karen Dale Harris, to take a look at it and make suggestions that would help me market it to agents and traditional publishers.

And, on my recent tour of the Canadian Maritimes, I came up with an idea for a series based on a family of siblings who inherit a small tour business in Sedona, AZ. The plan is that each book would feature one of the siblings in a romance, with an overall arc for the series as they learn to manage the company as a joint effort.

And, of course, there are six more deadly sins to investigate!

J.I.: Of course, what’s an interview without a few fun, fan questions. What book(s) are currently in your to-read stack?

J.O.E.: I just finished book ten of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series of detective novels that are set in Quebec. They’re not at all the kind of book I write. They’re mysteries, somewhat slow-moving and introspective, but I’m really enjoying them.

J.I.: And when you’re not writing, what is your favorite thing to do?

J.O.E.: When I’m not reading or writing, I try to spend time out in the woods, hiking and photographing wildflowers and butterflies. And I try to grab time with my grandkids while they’re still young enough to want to do stuff with Grandma.

Jeanne Oates Estridge’s Bio, in her own words:

Grew up in Dayton, Ohio

Holds a Master’s Certificate in Writing the Romance Novel from the Nora Roberts Romance Writing Program at McDaniel College in Baltimore.

Has her fingerprints on file at the FBI.

Used her electives in her Bachelor’s program in MIS to study Children’s Fantasy Literature, Wildflowers and Anthropology of Religion.

Won the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart® for what went on to become The Demon Always Wins.

Photographs wildflowers as a hobby.

Once spent an entire evening trying to meet up with family at the Cincinnati Zoo, only to discover they were at the Columbus Zoo.

Is a two-time cancer survivor.

Hates pink but loves Pink.

Thinks most things are funny if you look at them the right way.