Janet Nichols Lynch



What is your background?  I was born October 3, 1952, in Sacramento, California.  I grew up in an idyllic suburb, Carmichael, which was really great except only white people lived there, so I didn’t learn about diversity until college.  I attended 12 years of parochial school, including Loretto, an all-girls Catholic high school.  My parents were hard-working folks, my mom a homemaker and my dad a refrigeration maintenance engineer.  My sister Joyce, two years older than I, was the first person in our family to graduate from college.  I lived a very active childhood, biking to school from the age of six, swimming, water skiing, snow skiing, golfing, and participating in school sports, volleyball and softball.  I also favored reading as a form of recreation.  My favorite books were the Little House on the Prairie series, Nancy Drew, the Oz books, YA novels, biographies, and the classics, most notably Jane Eyre.  Music loomed big in my childhood, from the time I began taking piano lessons at age seven.  I sang in choirs and attended music camp.  I took up the guitar in eighth grade and, throughout high school, emulated Joan Baez.  I performed any chance I could and also acted in plays, but my greatest passion was playing classical piano.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?   I distinctly remember after my orals, when my ASU piano professor shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, you’re a master of music,” I thought, no I’m not.  Soon after, I started working as a writer.  Since I was racing bicycles at the time, my first published writing was cycling journalism.  It wasn’t long before I realized I really wanted to write fiction.

How did you learn to write?  Everything I know about writing I learned playing the piano.  First of all, it takes lots of patience to get to be any good.  Since it took me 14 years to get a masters in piano, I figured it would take me at least ten years to produce publishable fiction.  My first short story was accepted after six years, so I felt ahead in the game.  Self-motivation is also key.  No one ever cared if I learned another Beethoven Sonata, just as no one cares if I write another novel.  Self-discipline in both music and writing means doing what I want to do when I don’t want to.  In both art forms, I have to labor over all the little details yet think of the work as a whole.  It’s a matter of taking a work apart and putting it back together over and over again.  Repetition, repetition, repetition.  I write everything ten or 20 times.  Each time something is added to the work.  Practice does not make it perfect, but it makes it better and better until it’s finished.  Concentration is absolutely essential.  Nearing a recital, I often practiced 40 hours a week.  That’s what it took to keep 120 pages of memorized music in my mind.  It’s the same just before I send a book off to a publisher.  I’ll spend as many as 14 hours a day reading straight through a work, in order to keep all the little details in my head at once.  One last comparison:  I never felt a piece of music was finished until I performed it; likewise, I don’t feel a piece of writing is finished until it’s published. 

Is being a teacher and being a writer compatible?  I find it to be so.  I’m involved in reading and writing all day, and I’m in the real world making observations to write about.  Also, a steady salary frees me up to write what I want.  Writing is too much work to write a single sentence that doesn’t have meaning to me.  “Don’t quit your day job,” is my advice to any writer. 

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?  At 14, I collared the neighborhood kids in the street and forced them take piano lessons from me.  I’ve been teaching in some capacity ever since.

Can writing be taught?  I wouldn’t be in the business if I didn’t think I’m doing some good.  The development of writing takes time and practice.

What about those four-week on-line writing courses for which you can earn college credit?  Oh, please.  And some people still think they can learn to play the piano in ten easy lessons.  Some purveyors of education believe “credit” is a more desirable goal than actually learning something. 

Does writing take talent?  It certainly helps, but it’s not necessary.  I was always a bit surprised who showed up in my creative writing class.  It wasn’t usually the students who got A’s in English; it was the students who had stories to tell and the compulsion to tell them.  Teenagers have a tremendous need for self-expression, but then, don’t we all?  

How do you find time to write when you are teaching?  I sleep a lot and I run a lot.  The sleep makes my mind sharp so I can be productive every waking moment, and the running energizes me.  With a good dose of endorphins, I feel invincible.

What is your schedule?  I usually get up at 3:45 to meet my running group or ride my bike to the gym to swim and lift.  After working out and getting ready for school, I usually have an hour to write before riding my bike to school. I practice the piano from 5:00 PM to 6 most days. I long-distance cycle or run at least once a week, usually Saturday.  In the spring and fall, I enter a race nearly every weekend.  Sometimes I write in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends, depending on how much school work I have.

What prevents you from falling asleep in the afternoon?  Nothing.  Sometimes I do.  I think those cultures that rest after the midday meal really know how to live.

So you write every day?  Oh, no.  I’ve gone months without writing, but that’s OK because I know I’ll always get back to it.    

Why do you commute by bike?  I could give you noble reasons like preventing global warming and conserving fossil fuel--and I do care about those things--but the truth is it’s so much fun, I can’t stop myself.  No matter how hard the school day is, I have two play periods scheduled in.  My bicycle is my time machine, making me feel utterly ageless.  I feel the same riding a bike to school today as I did back in my college days.  I like riding by the ten cars waiting at the left turn signal.  I’m always sure to coast because that makes it even more fun.  I say hello to the llama, wave and ring my bell at the high school kids driving by, and banter with the middle schoolers who are walking, skating, and biking.

Why do you race?   I love it.  I compete in running events, triathlons, cycling time-trials, and open-water swims.  I’ve completed ten marathons, including Lake Tahoe and Dublin, Ireland.  Racing gives me an edge, not just in fitness.  It sharpens my wits and makes me feel young and totally alive. 

What has been your greatest challenge?  My senior recital, May 3, 1974.  Whenever I’m faced with a big challenge, I always think:  I did my senior recital; I can do this.

What has been your greatest adventure?  After graduate school, riding my bike from Phoenix, AZ, to Washington, D.C.  I also enjoyed cycling the Italian Riviera and Ligurian Mountains.

What has been the best time of your life? It’s always the present, but my husband Tim once taught a semester in London, and our living there three months was heavenly.  

How would you describe your writing style?  It’s different every novel, depending on the viewpoint character.  R.D. in Messed Up, for example, has very limited vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and prior knowledge.  I must admit I sometimes got exasperated with this, so in subsequent revisions, I cheated a bit and allowed him to express himself with a few participle phrases and subordinate clauses introduced by relative pronouns, which are really beyond him. 

Is R.D. a second-language learner?  No.  If so, his voice would be completely different. 

How are you able to write in various voices?  I have a trained ear.  (Everything I know about writing I learned playing the piano.)  I listen very carefully when people talk and I read volumes of student writing.  R.D. and the vast majority of the kids in his generation don’t read enough to understand sentence structure.  Also, they haven’t been read to as children.  (Read to your bunny 20 minutes a day.)  Writing is an extension of reading.  When people tell me they want to be writers, but don’t like to read, I simply don’t believe them. 

Do you write YA because you teach?  Probably.  My students give me about ten ideas a day.  My YA novels seem to write themselves, and they’re loads of fun.  My literary mainstream fiction is much more difficult to write and get published. 

Is it true you tell your students “I’m going to put you in my novel”?  I do, but it’s not in the manner they’re imagining it.  I’ll swipe a gesture, a snippet of dialogue, a minor incident, and toss it into the mix of a fictional work. 

How do you get started on a novel? Usually with a character.  All my fiction is character-driven, rather than using plot or ideas as a guiding force, although these elements are essential, too.  Sometimes I’ll start with a situation.  For example, the Big Freeze of 1990 coinciding with the Persian Gulf War afforded me a dramatic backdrop for Peace is a Four Letter Word. During the incubation of Chest Pains, two things happened to my husband: one semester he had a nun in his music theory class--quite capable and nothing like Sister Cecilia--and once an unknown woman with the same name as an old girlfriend called him in the dead of the night, looking for her missing child.  For Addicted to Her, a girl once stormed into my classroom, shoved a boy, and yelled, “Why’d you tell?”  This same boy and another guy had a fight over the girl outside my classroom right after class.   

Is the character Gordon in Chest Pains based on your husband? No, they’ve got the same profession, but that’s it.

Where did you get the title Chest Pains?  For some reason, some novels are hard to title.  Messed Up has been titled that since the first day I started writing it.  Chest Pains was originally Keep the Whatever a play on “keep the faith,” but it’s too esoteric.  After that, I called it Modern Day Miracles, which is too holy.  In an earlier draft I had the novel divided into four parts, and “Chest Pains” was the title of the first one.  My editor suggested we use it for the title of the novel, and that’s been the best idea yet.  Chest pains is a metaphor for the mid-life crisis Gordon is experiencing.

Why is there a torso of a Polynesian woman on the cover?  Gordon has a love affair with the Polynesian woman Mikilauni.  I especially like the placement of the words, “a novel” on the book jacket.  It should read, “a navel.”  Ha!

Is it hard to get published?  It’s the devil.  I wish I could get back all the hours I’ve spent marketing my work and use them to write instead.  Marketing is the part about writing that everybody hates, and some writers just can’t bring themselves to do it, so therefore they don’t get published.

Do you have an agent?  Diana Finch sold the Music Maker books and another super-duper agent Jodie Rhodes sold Messed Up, Addicted to Her, and A Chance to Ride.  My YA novels have found a home at Holiday House, which is a real blessing.  For the rest, I’ve found publishers on my own.

So you’ve found it harder to find an agent than a publisher?  For some of my work, yes.  That’s because agents are in the publishing business to make a living.  I’m in it to produce works of literature.  This can be a huge conflict of interest. 

How can a writer improve his or her chances of getting published?  Get some feedback.  A writer can’t possibly be objective about his or her own work, so joining a writer’s workshop or entering an MFA program helps a lot.  

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to be a writer?  Write.  There’s people who want to want to write, but that isn’t the same thing.