My guest today is J. Helen Elza, author of the bestselling women’s Christian novel, Rosemillion, and most recently of a new Christian book for mid-grade readers, ages eight and up, called Miracle. I think you will find her a very interesting guest. I know I did.
Joe: Welcome to my blog, Helen.
Helen: Thanks for having me, Joe.
Joe: I know you must get this all the time, but I’m curious about your name, “J. Helen Elza.” It’s a lovely name, but it seems to me that it has that distinct feel of a nom de plume, am I right?
Helen: When you grow up in the ’50s with the name Pat Garrett and you just happen to be female, you take a lot of ribbing and in school, you are likely to be called Sheriff, as I was, frequently. Television westerns and western novels were big in the fifties (more so for native Texans like me)and so was the legend of Sheriff Pat Garrett who is claimed to have shot the outlaw Billy the Kid.
So the Sheriff became my nemesis when I was in junior high. When my books were published and I tried to find them in my name, Pat Garrett, and later, Pat Garrett Miller–it was a nightmare. I was buried under the sheriff. But the final straw came when my photo showed up in the sheriff’s gallery. That did it. I went to the local courthouse and legally changed my name to J. Helen Elza.
Joe: What a great story, and certainly an unusual one. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Did you always want to be a writer, and what other type of work did you do before you started writing?
Helen: I don’t know that I always wanted to be a writer; I just know that I wrote from about age twelve. As a kid, the number two kid in a family of ten kids, our entertainment choices were limited, almost as limited as the space in the car—so I spent a lot of time reading books. Writing seemed to follow naturally. For a sixth grade book report on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I found it easier to rhyme the report than to write it in prose. Somehow, that book report showed up in the Mid-Cities Daily News of Hurst, Texas. That was my first published writing
Joe: At one time, Rosemillion was the number one, bestselling novel in women’s Christian fiction, and even today it is still in the top ten in its category.* That must have put a lot of pressure on you. What have you done to follow up on that success?
Helen: While writing what readers seem to believe is a good book, that “good book,” to my mind, sets a standard. Subsequent books must achieve that same standard, and, preferably, surpass it. I published Rosemillion in 2012, and feel richly blessed because readers today continue to seek it out. (Rosemillion was book I of the Appalachian Trilogy.)
Writing Return to Widows Hollow, book II, presented a challenge because, now, it had to compete with Rosemillion. Years ago, I read a book called Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer. THAT book set my standard. Her book made me feel. I never forgot it, or the characters, and I promised myself that I would never write just words, but that I would do my best to write words that, like Morning Glory, would make readers feel. Writing Hard Mountain, book III of the trilogy, has presented more than a challenge. I’ve rewritten parts of it so many times, I can’t count them. But this book has to be excellent; it has to be the best that I can write for my readers. Some of them ask me frequently, “Where is it? When will you publish book III?” I wish I could tell them. I’m working on it. But I’d rather take a little longer writing it than give them a mediocre book. They ask, too, “Why Appalachia?” Sadly, most people don’t know the real story of Appalachia—who settled it, where the people came from, or what kind of people they were. In my opinion, Appalachia is the backbone of America. I have all the respect in the world for the place, for its people, for their history. (Note: Rosemillion is currently ranked #7 bestseller in the Kindle book store, under women’s Christian fiction.)
Joe: In addition to the first two books in the Appalachian Trilogy, you also wrote a book of poems called All That Stays. What can you tell us about that?
Helen: All That Stays is a conglomerate. In 1972 I wrote a book of poetry that I called Choices. Since then, I traveled across America and wrote rhyming tweets about those travels. I combined the best from Choices with the tweets to produce All that Stays. The title comes from one of my poems called, No Pauper, I. My aim is to write poetry that meets the same standards as my prose; my goal is for the poetry to make readers feel. In my opinion, Savannah, Little Man, Who Didn’t Love You Enough?, Little Red Haired Boy, and No Pauper, I, are the selections from this book that best accomplish that goal. I wrote the original Choices because even as a young adult, I believed that the choices we make determine our lives. The proof is everywhere; often, it’s visual and compels me to write.
Joe: So, I know you’ve been writing seriously since the seventies, but what kind of background did you have before you started writing?
Helen: (Laughs) Are you sure you want to know? It’s a pretty long story.
Joe: That’s okay. I’ve got all day.
Helen: Okay, here goes. My earliest career is a story unto itself. Shortly after I graduated high school, I left Metroplex, Texas for the golden shores of California. Having been raised in a very sheltered environment, I experienced culture shock on steroids when I landed, at age 19, in sunny Southern California. My brain was accustomed to a slow Texas drawl, and it had to shift into high gear to process the lightning quick speech of Californians. I never realized until then that Texans have an accent . . . If I had a dollar for every time I was asked, “You’re from the so-outh, aren’t you?” Never mind, I still wouldn’t have made the Forbes’ 500.
A friend’s father owned an attorney service, and employed me as the first female process server in Southern California. The job may sound mundane, (Helen laughs) however, it was anything but. People don’t like process servers. In L.A., movie stars don’t like process servers, because they rarely deliver good news. I learned that—like most things I ever learned—the hard way.
A few months into that employment, and I had chatted with a talking helicopter; had one young gent fire his shotgun at me; had a movie star turn his Dobermans loose on me; and had another unhappy “client” try to throw a trash can through the windshield of my boss’s Mercedes. Racing through lawn sprinklers, which had a way of springing to life when I was about, became a game. But the game turned serious when I had the unhappy task of serving a paper that reversed a judge’s decision in a divorce matter. The paper that I presented would reverse custody of two children, ownership of a Palm Springs mansion, and ownership of a popular nightclub/eatery. The recipient and her body guard knew the papers were coming, they just didn’t know that a female with a southern drawl would be bringing them. It could have ended worse than it did, and this process server could easily have been “worm dirt,” back in 1967, but instead of burying me, “the Hulk” tossed me, face first, onto the beautiful Palm Springs lawn which, like most Palm Springs desert lawns, consisted entirely of cactus and rock. There were other adventures, but I’ll save those for the inevitable “memoirs.”
Being the second oldest of ten kids, I never imagined that I would have a large family. But, among the odd balls that life throws us, it throws us a few curve balls, too. I ended up with eight kids: a conglomerate of yours, mine, and ours (four of my own and four step-kids). I believe that having a large family affords us an insight into human nature that we are not likely to learn in school, (laugh) and it also provides us with a wealth of ideas for children’s books.
Joe: Wow! You weren’t kidding. That’s some story. You really have lived a fascinating life, Helen. It’s no wonder you’ve been so successful as a writer.
Helen: Thank you, Joe. I can honestly say that my life has been anything but typical. I’ve had a few close calls, but more than anything, I feel that I have been blessed way more than I deserve. I absolutely believe that there is a God in Heaven—a living, loving God who allows us all free will with a free rein in our lives. He makes all things possible, but it’s the choices that we make that define and create our lives.
Joe: I can certainly agree with that, Helen—especially since my stroke. Now I know that your new book, Miracle, was published less than two weeks ago. But what I don’t know is whether or not you have written for children before. Is this something new for you?
Helen: (Laugh) I’ve been writing kids books since 1972, but I only just recently found the time to pull those yellowing manuscripts from the file cabinet. Early on, I submitted a book of poetry that, at the time, I called Rainbow Park, to Green Tiger Press. They sent back a note asking me to re-submit it in six months. That was a few decades ago. In the 70s, I sent the same manuscript to Houghton Mifflin. They returned a post card with seven words: “Count your meters and feet. We do.” (Laugh) Do you know how many meters and feet I’ve counted since then?
A friend in Colorado has the manuscript now. The title has been changed to The Yellow Brick Toad and Other Needful Nonsense. I have plans for that book and its main character, Julius Caesar Bogart Toad. Hopefully, kids (and parents) are going to love him.
Helen: Well, its a 180-page book for kids, ages 8 and up. In it, a 12-year-old boy named Willie MacGregor must fight the “Prince of Darkness” to recover Willie’s missing friend, Johanna, who, following an accident, uses a wheelchair.
Joe: Hmmm. Sounds interesting. What inspired you to write something like that?
Helen: Two real life events, actually. The first occurred in Tennessee, about 20 years ago. Some local people adopted a family of deer. They called the buck, Papa Deer, and he had what hunters call a trophy rack. He was shot in his pen by some hunters, who took him to a local taxidermist. The taxidermist recognized Papa Deer and called the sheriff, and the hunters were fined, jailed, and had their guns confiscated and destroyed. About this same time, in Janesville, Wisconsin, a buffalo calf was born. Native Americans from all over the world came to see this calf, which was a most special calf.
Those two, real-life events inspired me to write Miracle, which is a fun, high drama fantasy that mixes the supernatural with the spiritual, and is set in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hopefully, Willie and the cast of lovable characters who befriend him in his search for Johanna will inspire young readers to love reading.
Joe: That’s a fascinating story. So, Helen, are your writing any more books for children?
Helen: I am, Joe, but no mid-grade novels at the moment. However, Willie and Johanna may continue their adventures—adventures that might find them exploring human potentiality and new sciences like noetics*, maybe current human realities tailored to entertain and to teach younger readers. It’s fun to contemplate.
Joe: Yes it is—and complicated (laugh). So, Helen, what are you working on now? Any more poetry?
Helen: Actually, yes. I’ve got two rhyming books for kids. One of them is about 50 pages, with illustrations, called Mack’s Shack, and it features MacCarthy Micklestick. “Mack” is considered an oddball by his friends and teachers. They warn Mack when he graduates high school that if he doesn’t conform and do like the other kids, he will be a failure in life. Mack’s answer to them is to move off to the desert, where he builds himself a shack—and that’s when the fun—and Mack’s road to phenomenal success—begins.
The second book is much longer, about 200-or-so pages, and is a “Shel Silverstein-ish” tale of a frog who wants to be a movie star. On his road to Hollywood stardom, Julius Caesar Bogart Toad has his ups and downs, works odd jobs to pay his rent, and meets and “adopts” a motley crew of Brooklyn street kids. Julius becomes sax-player, pizza-provider, coach, teacher, mentor and best friend to his “bums” until the day he gets “the call.”
Joe: Now that sounds really interesting. Tell me more.
Helen: Well, The Yellow Brick Toad and Other Needful Nonsense, which reads like Julius’s personal journal, is filled with pages that are designed to entertain young readers with a little wisdom, encouraging bits, delightful characters, and a lot of laughter. Parents will appreciate the universal truth that Julius ultimately discovers.
Joe: Sound like the kind of book that we need more of for today’s kids. Well, J. Helen Elza, it’s been a real pleasure learning more about you and your writing. I admire your imagination, and I definitely appreciate your taking time out of your busy writing schedule to spend a little time with my readers. We all look forward to following your career, which, no doubt, will continue to be successful.
Helen: Thank you, Joe. I really appreciate your allowing me to spend some time with your readers. I hope to continue writing for my readers, and to continue to learn and improve so that I can deliver the quality of literature that they deserve. Thank you again. Blessings to you.
*NOTE: “In philosophy, noetics is a branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the study of mind as well as intellect. Noetic topics include the doctrine of the agent/patient intellect (Aristotle, Averroes) and the doctrine of the Divine Intellect (Plotinus).” Credit: Wikipedia
Here’s where you can find J. Helen Elza on Social Media