Jeanne Oates Estridge began writing in third grade, when she crafted her first short story about bunnies who named their many children in alphabetical order. That same year, she drew a picture of her future self dressed “in a floor-length, crayon-blue dress, sitting at a typewriter.” It may have taken a bit of time, but with the September 2018 publication of her first book in the Touched by a Demon series, The Demon Always Wins, Jeanne realized that dream of publishing a book. Her second novel in the series, The Demon’s in the Details, releases tomorrow, January 15! I first met Jeanne when I enrolled in a class she taught through Word’s Worth Writing Center. I’m hoping she decides to head back into the classroom soon to share all of her writing knowledge with future generations of writers. In the meantime, I’m grateful that she took some time to answer a few of my questions.
Christina: In an interview with Happily Ever After, you described The Demon Always Wins as the “story of Job as a paranormal romantic comedy.” You also talked about where the idea for the book came from. Did you ever have any hesitation about writing about demons and Satan?
Jeanne: Actually, I did. There were four books I read as research for writing The Demon Always Wins—an analysis of Job, Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. In the afterword to Screwtape, Lewis wrote, “The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done.” I had similar feelings when I wrote the Hell scenes in The Demon Always Wins. Twisting your head around to look at morality from the other side—celebrating pain and humiliation—is weird and unpleasant. I don’t think I knew how unpleasant until I realized I’d fallen into the habit of listening to worship music almost exclusively whenever I was in the car. The uplift was a way of combating the nastiness.
Christina: The book features unforgettable characters, the demon Belial and the human Dara among them. What inspiration did you draw on to make these characters come to life?
Jeanne: Belial was inspired by Milton’s description of him as “Hell’s politician.” He’s clever and resourceful but he made one very bad decision a long, long time ago and he’s stuck with the consequences for all eternity. It feels like I’ve gotten a vast number of do-overs throughout my life, so to think about a life—especially a many-thousands-of-years-long life—where you didn’t get the opportunity to start over was intriguing. Ha! I just realized there’s probably an element of the movie Groundhog Day in the book, too.
As for Dara, I once told a friend that Dara is who I want to be when I grow up—deeply compassionate and giving, but also nobody’s fool. She was the person in all the universe that could redeem Belial.
Christina: An early version of The Demon Always Wins won the 2015 RWA Golden Heart Award (and having read it, I can see why!). What made you decide to pursue indie publishing rather than trying to traditionally publish your award-winning novel?
Jeanne: There are several reasons. One, traditional publishing needs authors to crank out books a lot faster than I’m able to write, which meant that if I got on that hamster wheel, neither the publisher nor I were going to be happy. Two, because The Demon Always Wins doesn’t fit neatly into a subgenre, it’s tough to market. That’s not a selling point with traditional publishing. Three, there was a kind of chicken-and-egg thing that went on with the book. The early version of the book had an intriguing premise, a solid plot, and strong characters, but no sexual tension. In order to fix this, I needed an editor. So I hired Karen Harris, a truly amazing editor who told me what I needed to do to fix it. Based on the feedback I’ve received, I was successful in doing that. I think it’s possible I would have been able to interest an agent or traditional publisher at that point, but by then I had so much money invested, and most of the work was done, so it made sense to just forge ahead on my own.
Christina: Have you always been interested in writing romance in particular? What can that genre do that others cannot?
Jeanne: My favorite thing about a good book, the thing that makes the book really satisfying to me, is a strong character arc. In life, I don’t actually believe people change very much, but in fiction I love the idea that we can learn from our mistakes and become stronger, wiser, kinder.
Romance is the one genre that has that built into the equation. Mysteries are about figuring out whodunit. Suspense is about the thrill ride. Literary fiction is generally about the psychological or philosophical deep dive or just the sheer poetry of language. But in romance, the characters have to earn their happy ever after. I know some people didn’t like Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes because (spoiler!) Will commits assisted suicide at the end. But for me, Lou’s character arc from a girl who won’t leave the safe haven of her little town to a woman who can go anywhere and do anything, more than makes up for that. I loved that book!
Dara has a kind of reverse character arc—she starts out as a total goody-two-shoes but by the end of the book she’s drinking and gambling and fornicating. And Belial has one of the furthest-reaching character arcs I’ve ever encountered. Those two things make the book really satisfying to me.
Christina: Writers often have diverse day jobs, and you are no exception, having played the role of computer analyst. What lessons have you learned in that profession that you can apply to writing?
Jeanne: Plotting a book is not really all that different from designing a computer system. For both, you start out with a high-level concept of what you want to create (a system to process orders versus a story about a demon who bets that he can seduce and corrupt a good woman in seven weeks). Then you decide on details of the system—how many functions you want the system to handle vs. what will happen in each act of the book. Then you drill down a little more, uncovering and resolving issues as you go. Then you start writing/coding, and all kinds of things pop up that you didn’t think of and you deal with them. I was just telling my sister (who was also a computer geek ) that beta readers are a lot like code reviewers—the really good ones find your errors but also recognize the good work you’ve done.
Christina: In addition to books, you have a blog where you write about a plethora of topics, including how difficult it was for you to include intimate scenes for Dara and Belial. In the end, you realized that you had to show the scenes because “having the plot revolve around something I wasn’t prepared to show maimed my story.” Do you have any suggestions for writers who might be hesitant to write scenes that scare them?
Jeanne: I think the primary thing any writer has to keep in mind is you’re not writing for you. You’re writing for the reader, and you want to give her (or him) the most satisfying possible reading experience. When you make it about them, instead of about you, it becomes a lot easier to write whatever you need to write to deliver on the book’s promise.
Christina: Romance novels can tend toward familiar tropes. Do you try to be original, deliver readers what they want, or a combination of both?
Jeanne: The Demon Always Wins is a comedic retelling of the story of Job from the Bible, which is pretty far off the beaten path of romance, but it’s also an enemies-to-lovers story, a second-chance-at-love story, and an alpha hero story. Tropes become tropes because they resonate with people. The challenge is to do something with them that’s fresh and original.
Thanks to Jeanne for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me at the address on my contact page.