Shannon here: I sat across from Jennifer Rogers Spinola at the Barbour Author Reception in Indianapolis last year at the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference. The first thing I noticed was how much she enjoyed the food. With each bite, her eyes closed as she savored the tastes exploding on her palate. After striking up a conversation with her, I noticed she’s just as pretty inside as outside. I learned she’s from South Carolina/Virginia, a former missionary who married a Brazilian she met in Japan, and she currently lives in Brazil, where there aren’t as many food choices. I featured her on my real life romance blog in February and she’ll back again in October to celebrate the release of her debut novel, Southern Fried Sushi. I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but my copy is coming as soon as it releases. Jennifer charmed me again with this interview. Some of her lyrical answers made me teary-eyed. She’s promised to pop in from Brazil today, so feel free to ask her questions. Without further ado, prepare to be charmed by Jennifer Rogers Spinola:
Q: What’s it like living in Brazil? What’s a typical day like?
A: Well, for starters, it’s really HOT! We live in Brasilia, which is a raised plateau with elevation of over a thousand feet, so it gets a bit cool in the evenings and sometimes the days, too, during winter—sort of like a desert. But during the days it regularly gets up into the 90s and higher. I’d say 85-90 is probably a good average. In Brasilia the air is extremely dry, so during the dry season (winter) it can go a hundred days without rain. Which means gorgeous blue skies, but also dry, brown grass, withered plants, and lots of blowing red dust. When rainy season begins, it’ll rain almost every day, scattered showers, or sometimes harder downpours.
Brazil is a hard country to capture in a description, but one that gets in your blood and stays there, for better or for worse. When I visited Brazil in the year 2000 as a writer/reporter for the International Mission Board, I immediately fell in love with its beautiful brown-skinned people, the warmth of the air and of the smiles and kisses, the dusty roads and simple family gatherings, and the passion for God and Brazilian soccer. I was so captured by Brazil that I couldn’t wait to come back. And then when I met a handsome young Brazilian exchange student in Japan… well, I did!
Now my image has changed a little after seeing what it’s like to really live here. I mean, the country is the same as it was on my first visit, but digging in over time has opened my eyes to things I didn’t notice back then: crime (lots of crime), poverty (LOTS of poverty), the huge gap between the elite rich and the millions of shockingly poor, the huge amounts of political corruption, and the immense difficulty for a person of even modest well-to-do means to accomplish things that are simple in the U.S., like buying a car (they cost 3-4 times our amounts here), buying a house, or even renting an apartment. I have been insulted and shunned for being an American, had two cell phones and my wallet stolen out of my backpack, taken my life in my hands by getting on buses driven by speed-breaking maniacs, taxis driven by “pirate” (i.e. fake) taxi drivers, and public vans that swerve up onto the sidewalk and around the stoplight fixture to avoid waiting at the light. It has not been easy! But I have never been mugged or “lightning-kidnapped,” as is common here, so I can count my blessings! And our little miracle baby, Ethan, is so much worth it!
A typical day for me is to get up and help my husband and son get ready for the day, all the while enjoying the beautiful Brazilian blue sky and breeze, early morning sunshine. We eat tropical fruits like papaya and pineapple for breakfast often, sometimes with coffee or tea and cereal, and I love this! 🙂 Then I take care of Ethan for the day in our little rented apartment: wash the dishes, make lunch (usually typical Brazilian rice and beans, salad, and a fried egg or some chicken/beef), make dinner, clean the floor from tracked-in dust, do laundry and hang the clothes to dry (dryers aren’t common here), take Ethan out to play, teach him Bible stories and letters, write, teach an ESL class in the evenings, catch up on my blog, clean the floor after potty-training accidents, give him a bath, and so forth. I have no car during the day (my husband has it) so Ethan and I can’t go anywhere (a big frustration of mine), and I don’t even have a driver’s license because the process is so involved to get mine translated, and for five years out of seven we didn’t even have a car yet.
Apartments/houses run only cold water except in the shower, and we drink bottled water. When it runs out we either pick up fresh bottles at the store or have it delivered. Water pressure in the showers is weaker than in the U.S., and electrical outlets have poorer contact, so we have to jiggle things in plugs multiple times or hold the cords a certain way to get them to work. Power outages are fairly common—about once every two weeks or so, recently. I sometimes get tired of re-setting the microwave clock. 🙂
On weekends we visit my in-laws’ farm on the outer edge of town, which has horses, a crop plantation, pigs, and lots and lots of red dust. Athos’ parents have a house there with hammocks, and we enjoy letting Ethan ride his tricycle in the yard while we talk and enjoy the breeze. One of my favorite perks of Brazilian life: housekeepers. Athos’ mom pays a sweet Christian lady to come and do basic housecleaning/cooking every day, and she “lends” her to me twice a week if she doesn’t have guests or visits. What a blessing! If it weren’t for her coming, I’d get almost no writing done!
Q: What is the biggest writing challenge you’ve encountered this past year – craft, career, writing life, etc? How did you solve it?
A: I think my biggest challenge this past year was simply trying to write in the midst of life: computer viruses, a nearly destroyed laptop that Best Buy was SO incredibly gracious to fix FOR FREE, financial issues here in Brazil, learning how to juggle potty training and two-year-old needs with my wish for unbroken hours of time to concentrate and write. But it’s been wonderful, and God is good!
Q: What is the one thing you’d like to share with other writers?
A: I wish I could let unpublished writers know that just because their books aren’t published doesn’t mean their writing isn’t as good—or better—than many published authors. It’s all a question of God’s timing and everything coming together at the right moment—sort of like a woman waiting an extra-long while (like I did) to get married. And it isn’t about us—it’s about God and His plans for our life. He knows when the right time is, and when it comes, everything will fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
Q: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?
A: Definitely a landscape designer. I love plants and flowers! It was always the second thing on my list after writing, and something (I hope) one day can be a second career. I’ve collected seed and plant catalogs since my childhood, planning the colors and species and layout of gardens I’d like to plant. If not a landscape designer, then I’d choose something like a forest ranger – like my dad – or a park service worker. I love the outdoors!
Q: Where is the coziest spot in your home?
A: I’d have to say our bedroom. It’s small, but gorgeous – lots of paneled cabinets and a roomy bedside table. My favorite part: the plant-filled, glassed-in veranda that runs along the side wall, closed by a sliding glass door and floor-length curtains. When I open the veranda window, air billows out the curtains. Lots of natural light! I love it.
Q: What is your favorite time of the day?
A: MORNING! I love anything in the morning – the earlier, the better. I used to get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to write, and I miss seeing the sky turn from black to blue to gray to glorious gold. Everything smells so fresh, so clean. The streets are silent. Beautiful! I like to run while the air is still fresh and cool.
Q: In what ways do you think your writing journey has benefited your family? How does your writing affect your family?
A: Well, it affects my family in the sense that I’m not always as “accessible” every single second as I used to be, because sometimes during the day I’m either writing or editing, building up my website or doing a guest post, or critiquing one of my crit partners’ chapters. However, it’s been a tremendous blessing because I’ve been able to STAY home with my son rather than go out and work—all because of this unexpected gift of a three-book contract (and a fourth since that series). Here in Brasilia (which is currently more expensive than New York City) we feel a lot of financial strain, so it’s a big deal that I’m able to stay at home and write—especially since my husband’s parents both work full-time, which means I don’t have access to family babysitting. I don’t know a single other mom who works exclusively from home in Brasilia.
Q: If you could pick a theme song to play every time you entered a room, what would it be?
A: Well, this might be weird, but I really like Handel’s Messiah—the END part, with all the “Amens.” There’s this gorgeous piece right before the end called, “Worthy Is The Lamb,” almost all of which is taken straight from the book of Revelation, and it has all these fabulous crescendos. Put together with the gorgeous “Amen” chorus that comes next, which builds to this momentous climax, it just makes me feel like angels are falling in worship, the heavens are opening, and I’m stepping through the door to heaven. The conductor’s wand poised in mid-air. Goosebumps on my arms. Dirty laundry forgotten in a breathless hush. I guess that’s not a bad feeling for stepping into a room. 🙂
Q: What is your most laughable dating story?
A: Well, it’s kind of funny since Athos and I actually weren’t allowed to “date,” per se, when we met. I was a missionary in a program for young people, and one of the rules is that we refrain from dating while we’re on the field. So when I met Athos, I was so confused at what God was doing because while HE was all right, the timing was ALL wrong! Or so I thought. In fact, it turned out to be the most amazing thing ever because, without “dating” and cordoning ourselves off as a couple before we were ready, we got to know each other as friends—without all the pretension and attempts to impress. He helped our mission team often as a volunteer (he was a foreign exchange student at a nearby university) and attended mission church services, so we got to see each other under those circumstances, and occasionally a walk around town or a coffee in Starbucks. We were never, ever alone in either of our apartments, for example—even for five minutes.
So we did everything in reverse: became friends, felt seriously about each other, decided to marry—and then dated. Ha ha! We had our first “date” in the pouring rain at a dinky Tastee-Freez restaurant in my redneck small town after I’d just said “yes” and accepted his ring, and our first kiss was in front of the church on our wedding day. 🙂
Q: What woman in your life has had the greatest impact on you?
A: I’d have to say my mom. She passed away when she was 43 (I was nineteen) but I learned so much from her. I knew her life wasn’t perfect, and neither was she, but the one thing I really admire about her is that she loved God so deeply—and she loved my sister and me as well. I remember clearly one conversation we had when I was a child, where she told me she’d always love me no matter what I did. “What if I killed somebody?” I asked her. And her response was so perfect: “I’d be really sad if you did that,” she said. “But I’d still love you anyway.” That boggled my mind and stuck with me forever.
Q: Which TV family is most like your own?
A: I don’t really know because I’m so out of TV these days, especially American TV… 🙂 Maybe “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is sort of like us, since I’m from a relatively quiet Southern family married to a Brazilian with a big, loud, partying, laughing, fighting, hugging, kissing Brazilian family—all thrown together with a gorgeous adopted child of a noticeably different and beautiful color, a first for both of our families.
Q: Which amusement park ride is your favorite and why?
A: I like roller coasters, but I love the Ferris wheel the most. I love sitting in that bucket, suspended over people like ants below, the golden rays of summer evening shining out their last bursts over the dusty ground. Higher and higher, up and over, against breathless blue twilight, and then down again. Slow enough that you can hear your thoughts, smell the cotton candy, but fast enough that your stomach jitters just a touch.
Q: What do you think is the greatest invention of all time?
A: Easy – the disposable diaper. 🙂 I do cloth diaper as well, but oh, how I’d like to shake the person’s hand who invented disposables.
Q: Would you rather live a week in the past or a week in the future?
A: Definitely the past. I’m always so curious about how people lived in the past—what they ate, what they wore, how they experienced hopes and failures and births and deaths with the inventions and realities they knew at the time. I’m grateful that our modern progress in medicine, technology, and education has come so far, but at the same time I think we miss out on some of the beautiful simplicity, clean and unpolluted air, and less harried lifestyles that our ancestors of the past enjoyed.
Q: How do you balance writing, exercise, home, etc.?
A: My family comes first in everything. That’s the only way I can do it. Because if they don’t come first, then I think I’ve missed my purpose as a wife and mom. But they don’t need me 24-7, and there are lots of creative ways I can incorporate other aspects of my life into my family. I write when my son sleeps and when my husband gets home from work and spends time with him, and before my husband and I go to bed. If I’m on tight deadline I’ll get up early. I also take my laptop to my in-laws’ house so that when my brain’s tired of Portuguese, I can work (with other eyes helping me watch Ethan). Exercise – I run every other morning while my husband watches Ethan, and I take Ethan outside twice a day (at least) to play and swing and run. Which, with him being such an energetic kiddo, gives me pleeeenty of exercise. 🙂
Q: What’s your favorite family tradition?
A: My dad started ordering cheeses, sausages, and other goodies from a special holiday catalog at Christmas when I was a teenager. My mom didn’t slave all day cooking Christmas dinner—we just nibbled Swiss cheese and crackers, fancy mustards, and put a salad or fruit on the table and spent Christmas relaxing. But when my mom passed away in 1996, nobody felt like having Christmas anymore. My dad, however, still ordered the cheese and sausage, and we sat around the uncomfortably empty table, eating and remembering how much we’d enjoyed those days together. And year after year, as our hearts warmed again to holidays, we’d always order something from the catalog for Christmas.
This tradition has continued, nearly unbroken, for almost fifteen years now since my mom’s death. When I moved to Brazil with my husband, my dad still shipped—at great expense, sometimes totaling nearly a hundred dollars—a heavy box of the same special cheeses, mustards, sausages, and peppermint-chocolate layer cakes we’d enjoyed with my mom. And instead I ate it with my husband and then my beautiful Brazilian son, remembering and creating new memories. My husband loved the idea so much that he said we’ll continue it always—and I’ll never have to cook a Christmas dinner. 🙂
Q: Would you rather meet your great grandchildren or great grandparents?
A: Now in this question I might answer differently from the one about the week in the past versus the week in the future. Why? Because I want so much to know how my son’s life will be used for God’s glory. Every single dirty diaper, missed night of sleep, and day of tears and frustration will be worth to know that Ethan will have spent his life following the Lord, changed the world through Christ, and either been a single man who honored God with his life or raised a godly family that will continue spreading the message of grace and salvation. All of this, and I will die a happy woman.
Q: What role have your friends played in your success as a writer?
A: I am absolutely indebted to several people: Roger and Kathleen Bruner, who first encouraged my “Sushi” manuscript, edited it, and showed it to Barbour; my police-officer cousin, Lessa, who’s been my writing partner and endless idea machine ever since our first crazy childhood days together; and my four amazing crit partners who make my jaw drop with their talent and editoral suggestions. They are ALL incredible. I would never, EVER be where I am today without them.
Q: Who is your biggest cheerleader?
A: My husband first, who gives me time to work because he believes in what I’m doing (and tells me so). Even Ethan, who tries hard to be patient while I’m working, and often prays for “Mama’s books” at breakfast. 🙂 And then definitely the friends I’ve listed above. I couldn’t do it without any of them.
Q: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
A: I think my question would be, “Why me?” And I don’t mean, “A tree fell in the parking lot and smashed my car. Why me?” Although I do feel that way quite often. What I mean is, “Why would You choose me, Lord?” Why would He leave His home in glory and die for me, a sinner, who the Bible says “was His enemy”? There are so many people in the world who have never heard of God’s grace and forgiveness—who not only die without Him, but live their lives without the compassion, peace, strength, and joy He gives for daily living. Why was I allowed to grow up in Sunday school, reading His Word? Why did I get to meet Him early in life and change my sinful, self-centered life accordingly? Why eternal life instead of hell? Why me?
Q: If you could make up a holiday, what would it be and how would you celebrate it?
A: I think I’d create a holiday called “Really Cool Single People’s Day.” I know so many awesome singles who want to be moms and dads, and would make great ones, but they never get to celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. And while all the other couples are making out over chocolate and fondue for Valentine’s Day, or kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas, these people are patiently and reverently waiting for God’s timing. So I’d give them the works: chocolate (lots of chocolate!), fireworks, a day off, flowers, a parade, an amazing dinner.
Q: What is the best book you’ve read recently, and why did you like it?
A: I really love “Just Do Something.” It’s a quirky little fast-reading book about the will of God. The main message of the book is that we don’t have to agonize over finding (or missing, more specifically) the will of God and His plan for our life. Instead of wringing our hands and paralyzing ourselves over which direction to take or which decision to make, the author says, in essence, “Just do something!” It was a refreshing, liberating book for me after so many years of doing exactly that – agonizing, wrestling, worrying. The very things we’re called NOT to do.
Q: What or who makes you giggle and why?
A: Two things come to mind: Ethan’s funny comments, and my cousin Lessa’s hilarious sense of humor. Cases in point: A few days ago Ethan picked up a shelled walnut half, and gasped in joy. “A pterodactyl!” he said, enraptured. This was right around the time he said, “Bye, poop! I love you!” while flushing, asked for ketchup on his apple, and called a buffalo a “dinosaur.”
As for Lessa, one of her most recent posts on my Facebook page said this (quoting): “Saw some roadkill. Thought of you. It was a skunk.” For somebody to think of me while seeing roadkill, it has to be good. 🙂
Q: What is your favorite season and why?
A: I used to always say spring and summer growing up, but since moving to Brazil I say fall. Why? Because I live in eternal summer, and I miss the change in seasons. I miss the hint of longing and sorrow that comes with the falling leaves, the bittersweet glory in bright fall colors, the apples and pumpkins, the chill, the frost, the glow. I miss it all.
Q: If you made a list of ten things you’d like to do yet with your life, what would be on it?
A: Oh, my… plant a garden, write more books, lead more people to Christ, have/adopt more children, buy a house, become a part-time landscape designer, learn to play the violin better…
Q: Besides writing, what are you passionate about?
A: Easy—adoption. Adopting Ethan has changed our lives forever. Actually I’ve wanted to adopt since I was a child, and my husband decided he’d like to adopt when he was a college student and went on a mission trip to Cambodia, where they worked with an orphanage. We talked about adopting when we talked about marriage—as well as having birth children. In our case Ethan came before our birth children, and since I’m past 35 now, I’m starting to wonder if he might be our only child…? Unless we’re able to adopt again in the future?
My reasons for wanting to adopt have nothing whatsoever to do with infertility, though. To me it’s simple: James says that caring for the widow and orphan is “pure religion” – and yet so few ever do it! As Christians we should fiercely guard the sanctity of life and oppose abortion, yet not many people seem to think about what happens next. Sure, those unborn children should be given life… but then what? I say they’re our responsibility—we who have argued (and rightly so) for their lives. We should give of our time, our families, our very lives to see that those precious souls, created in the image of God, might find love, hope, a chance at new life with a God-fearing family.
I wish so many more Christian families would adopt!
Q: The biggest challenge in writing this book?
A: Whew… there were a lot! I had a computer virus that set me back a while, and then I spilled water (seriously) on my brand-new laptop. It’s a sheer miracle of God that Best Buy was able to repair it since it was still under warranty, and my friend Vanessa offered to take it back to the U.S. during her summer vacation. In the meantime I used a borrowed laptop from my sweet brother-in-law, Kyle, but it was an older one that doesn’t run quite as smoothly as mine, so it took extra time to work with (as well as understand the Portuguese operating system). I was so grateful to have anything at all to use while I waited for mine to be fixed… and unspeakably glad to have mine back!
Q: What do the Post-Its around your computer/screen/ bulletin board say?
A: Grocery lists, the water delivery number (drinking water must be bottled), notes on Japanese fans and colors for the third book in my series, and editing notes as I work on finalizing that manuscript in (eek) just two weeks!
Q: What is your favorite research or reference book or tool?
A: The net! I’m an addict! I use it for everything—online dictionaries and good thesauruses, the Bible online, Bible commentaries, Google for Japanese culture questions, cowboy boot brands, types of pasture fencing, and so forth. I look up everything!
Q: When you were a child, what did you dream of growing up to be?
A: A writer! Really! I’ve wanted to write since I was about 4 or 5 years old, making little books out of paper and stapling them together (with illustrations). I’ve written my whole life—just gobs and gobs of stuff. Notebooks stuffed with novels and poems. Stories. So publishing this series with Barbour is a dream come true!
Q: If you were given $10,000 to give away, how would you spend it?
A: If using it to adopt an international child counts, I’d do that. If not, I’d break it up into little parcels here and there and surprise people anonymously: medical treatments for one friend, a trip home for another with her family, a new car for someone else.
Q: What is the most unusual costume you ever wore at a Halloween party?
A: I never did Halloween much. I vaguely remember dressing as a ghost when I was five or six years old, and then neighbor kids started throwing eggs at tricker-treaters, so we decided not to trick or treat after that.
Q: If you could have free unlimited service for one year from a cook, chauffer, personal secretary, housekeeper, or masseuse, which would you choose and why?
A: MASSEUSE!!! Why? Because every single thing on the list besides “masseuse” I can do myself! I can cook and drive myself, and so forth. And while it would be a great benefit to have a housekeeper, for example, I can do it. However, I physically can’t massage my own back, and I get very stiff shoulders. Ahhh… just thinking about a masseuse is making me sleepy… 🙂
Q: Which character in your books is the most like you? How?
A: Actually none of them, so much. The main character in the series is Shiloh, a fashionable journalist go-getter stuck in Redneckville. She’s got a biting wit, a touch of snobbiness, and sort of tough outer shell. I’m like her in the journalist sense (I used to be one) but my personality is much less acerbic. And I’m not nearly as fashionable. I liked Adam’s character a lot because, with him being a landscaper, I got to live out my second dream by writing about his work.
Q: What jobs have you had in your life? Which did you like most? Least?
A: Oh, soooo many… waitress and bookseller (like Shiloh in the series), shelver of government documents, secretarial/typing work, assistant copyeditor in a major TV and satellite guide, missionary, tutor, ESL teacher, middle school and high school teacher, coffee server, barista, restaurant hostess, hotel front desk clerk, computer lab monitor, journalist/staff writer, and… I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.
My favorites: The staff writer for the International Mission Board, the Southern Baptist mission-sending agency. I absolutely LOVED this job. Writing has always been my thing, but writing about mission work around the world—something supremely positive and exciting and international—was just amazing. I enjoyed being a missionary, too, but it was really difficult because you “are” your work—you’re never off-duty, and you have to start all over from scratch with languages and everything, as if you know nothing. A surprising like: waitressing. I worked for a little place where everyone was friends and absolutely loved it. And the front-desk clerk position at the hotel was really neat, too.
My least favorites: I worked for a year at an American-based school here in Brazil, and I was so exhausted I’d often skip dinner and sleep at 7 p.m.—and still not get all my grading, correcting, test-prep, class-prep, and lesson planning done. I liked the actual teaching, but not the strenuous pace. Teaching at an English school in Brazil was only slightly less stressful because they kept Brazil work laws regarding breaks and other requirements for teachers.
About Jenny: Jennifer Rogers Spinola, Virginia/South Carolina native and graduate of Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, now lives in the capital city of Brasilia, Brazil, with her husband, Athos, and their son, Ethan. Jennifer and Athos met while she was serving as a missionary in Sapporo, Japan. When she’s not writing, Jennifer teaches English to ESL students in Brasilia. Find out more about Jenny at www.jenniferrogersspinola.com.
About Southern Fried Sushi: Ride the rollercoaster of Shiloh Jacobs’s life as her dreams derail, sending her on a downward spiral from the heights of an AP job in Tokyo to penniless in rural Virginia. Trapped in a world so foreign to her sensibilities and surrounded by a quirky group of friends, will she break through her hardened prejudices before she loses those who want to help her? Can she find the key to what changed her estranged mother’s life so powerfully before her death that she became a different woman—and can it help Shiloh too?
Giveaway: For those of you who stop by to chat, you’ll have an opportunity to win books by a couple of our guests: Deep Cover by Sandra Orchard, Love Remains by Kaye Dacus, and The Colonel’s Lady by Laura Frantz. PLUS, we’re throwing in two additional books from the Love Inspired line: Marrying Miss Marshall by Lacy Williams and Hearts in Flight by Patty Smith Hall.
Now, there are a few small rules you need to follow if you want a chance to win the books, but no worries, they’re not too difficult:
Comment on our “Company’s Coming” topic dated August 29, 2011 through September 9, 2011. Every time you comment, your name will go into a drawing for the books. Contest closes Saturday, September 10, 2011 at midnight. The winner will be posted on Sunday, September 11, 2011. Winner must provide a mailing address in an email to Brenda AT brendaandersonbooks DOT com. Do not post your address anywhere on this blog.