Insight Comes with Age: An Interview with Jenny Poelman

Impulsivity isn’t always a bad thing, and in the case of Key North, author Jenny Poelman‘s main character in The Alphabet Woods, impulsivity leads to some major changes, challenges, and life lessons. The book released in May 2023 and is well received by readers. One reviewer was impressed with its “interesting characters, engaging story, and a few plot twists that make it hard to put down once you start reading.” One of Jenny’s goals is to have a copy of the book in all fifty states, so read on for how you can help her achieve that goal!

Welcome, Jenny!

Christina: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Alphabet Woods. What inspired you to write this novel?

Jenny: Thank you, Christina! And thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about my novel. Also, thank you to everyone who reads this interview; and who has read or plans to read The Alphabet Woods.

My novel took eight years to write, from germination until it was published in spring 2023. I wrote in bits and pieces, but not seriously until 2022. It took that long mostly because we have eleven grandchildren ages sixteen and under, so for about a decade, I was too happily occupied to concentrate on much else. It worked out, though, because hanging out with those amazing little people has been a composite inspiration for the characters of Wain and Ell, the little boy and girl in the book.

The Acknowledgments section at the end of the book explains two very pertinent inspirations, but mentioning them would give too much away!

The story also came about because of so many other factors, some of them pretty typical; some extremely random: my own growing-up years, a lifelong love of writing and conversation, a fascination with what makes people tick, past experiences that moved and changed me, songs with lyrics that have spoken to me, poems I’d written and saved (and then wove into the story because I wanted to include them), even road signs and anagramming my Words With Friends tiles to create names for Wain’s cars…all this and more morphed into the story that became The Alphabet Woods.

Christina: I’m always intrigued by titles, and I love The Alphabet Woods. When in the process did the title come about? For those who haven’t read the book yet, can you give us a little backstory on why you chose the title?

Jenny: The title was always there, long before the book was written. Honestly, I don’t remember even thinking of it, or questioning whether it was fitting. I chose the title because… It would reveal a major piece of the story if I explained further, so I’ll stop there! But I promise that by the end of the book, the reader will understand!

Christina: The book is set in North Carolina, a place you also call home. What do you like best about North Carolina? Did you consider any other settings? If you had to do any research to make the setting come alive, did you find anything surprising?

Jenny: Since childhood, my life has been a series of moves. We’ve been in NC for seventeen years, by far the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. The book could easily have been set anywhere semi-rural, but a definite feeling of place was necessary to the plotline, and NC is the place I chose. I love Southerners and their storytelling skills and their civil, genteel ways and their humid accents and their fierce loyalty to their families. It all perfectly fit my vision for Key’s new life. I didn’t do any specific research, but I did draw on hundreds of conversations and observations over the seventeen years we’ve lived here. My protagonist, Key North, is not a Southerner, however; she’s a transplant from Illinois.

(That said, we are moving back to the Bozeman, Montana, area now that my husband, Ken, has retired. We are so excited to live in the West again, but we will miss wonderful North Carolina and the South!)

Christina: One of the main characters is Key North, who, as you mentioned in an email, “is absolutely not living the life she’d choose . . . in fact she’s never lived the life she’d choose.” That idea will resonate with many readers. What factors pushed Key into a life she didn’t want?

Jenny: Key’s backstory isn’t fleshed out very deeply in the book, but the reader will learn that she had a happy, if routine childhood in rural Illinois, an only child with solid parents who had a good marriage. She eventually married Jeff, who turned out to be a dismissive, disengaged, indifferent husband with whom she never had children. She knew he regretted marrying her, and in her desperation to prove she was worthy of him, Key lost herself. Until she was jolted awake by life-altering, unexpected events, she didn’t even realize she had been seeing herself all this time through her husband’s unsatisfied and critical eyes.

Christina: Key is a fifty-seven-year-old woman. Some would argue that the book industry is geared toward the younger crowd. Did you have any hesitations about bringing to life a middle-aged main character?

Jenny: Not at all. The Alphabet Woods is a story about making (and breaking) connections, no matter where one is in life. Throughout the book, Key North comes to grips with how she’s allowed life to happen to her instead of choosing her path. When she finally breaks free from her horribly depleted (and very wrong) view of herself, Key begins a transformation, finding the self she’d lost. And with the twist her life takes, it turns out that she’s exceptionally good at proactively living! Much of her insight comes with age.

Key also gains an understanding of what it takes to confront adversity. In fact, this was a major conversation I had with an editor, who felt Key came across at times as passive or weak; but I didn’t agree. My point of view is that true strength is not afraid of change or conflict but also does not need to shout or break down or curse someone out. True strength allows the conversations that ultimately resolve the problem. Key, as it turns out, is a calm, smart thinker, and a very good listener. She’s also tough, a bit impulsive, and willing to be unconventional. It pays off.

Christina: Speaking of middle-aged, did you encounter any ageism in your journey to publication? Were your expectations about the publishing industry in general realistic?

Jenny: I was terrified to submit my book, but it had nothing to do with age. I cannot overstate how extremely critical I am of my own writing. In fact, I’m so private about my writing that I wrote the entire book without telling a soul, not even my husband or my three daughters. I finally gave them copies to read and after they got over their shock, they were so encouraging! I had been so hard on myself that I truly didn’t see how it could be anything anyone would want to read. “Of course you should submit it,” they told me.

After I finished the umpteenth draft, I forced myself to begin looking online, not for a publisher, but for someone (not anyone I knew), who would be willing to read it and tell me if I should even pursue publication. I found Warren Publishing, who will read a manuscript for a very small fee, so I sent them what I now consider a raw, green manuscript –and they saw something in it and sent me a contract. I will never forget reading that email! It was unreal. And very terrifying. Before I was ready (and let’s face it, I would never have been ready), my writing would be out there for all the world to critique. It was very difficult to comprehend.

For nearly a year after that, the wonderful ladies at Warren helped me with editing and navigating the many twists and turns and decisions that come with publication; and the result is a collaboration of so many people, including my husband Ken and my three daughters. I am so grateful.

This probably sounds very weird, but the characters in the book were also a reason I finally submitted the manuscript. For years, they were banging on my head, wanting to get out, as though they knew before I did that they were going to get along just fine with the readers. It was crazy.

Christina: I love that one of your personal goals is to have a signed copy of the book in every state and as many countries as possible. How did this goal come about? As of this writing, have you realized the goal?

Jenny: I love goals and lists! As of February 2024, I’m still working on that goal! I have signed copies in 30 states and several countries. I have one of those US maps you see on the back of RVs, and it’s so satisfying to add another colorful state when I send away a signed book. Hey out there… if you’re from Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Kentucky, or West Virginia (to name a few) and you would like to purchase a signed copy, let me know! (My email address is:

Christina: Do you have a writing practice? If so, what is it, and what is the most useful tip you might have for writers just starting out.

Jenny: As a rule, most days I get up around 4;30 a.m. and sit in a comfy chair with my Apple MacBook Pro and drink coffee and write original material until 7:30 a.m. It’s the original writing that needs that coffee-fueled a.m. freshness. When I finish a chapter, I convert it to Word and email it to myself, and I then add it to my “edit copy” on my PC. I have no idea how it morphed into this system, but it works for me—almost as though the easy-going morning version of myself is sending the more critical afternoon version the edit copy.

I edit anytime, anywhere. My edit document contains the full book because I need the chapter-to-chapter flow.

The one writing tip I constantly tell myself when writing original material is, “write the gist of it.” I tend to get irrationally hung up on how I want a sentence to read, rather than allowing my thoughts to flow freely.

Then as I go about my day, I let my hurriedly written words simmer in my mind, and I ask myself questions: How can I add color to this scene? How would this particular person phrase a certain remark?  What was this person’s expression when they saw the situation unfold? I watch peoples’ faces; I listen to the cadence of their words; I mentally describe everything, like the sounds in a park, or a conversation overheard in an airport restroom, or how leaves reflect sunlight—anything to add a realistic touch to a paragraph or sentence.

I have a little notebook with me at all times (or I use the notes app on my phone), where I scribble reminders like: “look up the black stuff on RR ties” (It’s creosote, by the way) or “use the phrase ‘no sharp edges re: Mrs. T’ ”—because if I don’t capture these thoughts, I’ll forget they ever ran through my mind.

Last tip: the thesaurus is your best friend, but sometimes the simplest word is the most impactful.

Christina: Besides a sequel for your debut, what’s next for you?

Jenny: I hadn’t planned to write a sequel, but I’m excited about it! I’m about 75% done. It picks up just weeks after The Alphabet Woods ends and features a twenty-year-old stone-cold missing persons case involving a family Key North knows. She finds herself and Wain right in the middle of it. It’s been so fun to expand on the characters my readers have already met. I have a title but haven’t announced it yet.

Ken and I are also organizing our move to Montana. We’ll be just outside Yellowstone National Park. We’re looking forward to lots of family / friend visits and adventures out there! We love hiking and fly fishing and road trips and exploring new places. I also love photography.

Once my life gets more settled, I plan to write a third novel in this series. I’ve got lots of ideas and I love hanging out with Key and crew! So…more to come.

One final note: I so appreciate ratings/reviews on GoodReads, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble. So thank you, to anyone who writes one! You can find my author page on Amazon by searching for my book, or follow me on Facebook:

Thank you again, Christina, for spotlighting my book and to everyone who chooses to read it. I’ve enjoyed sharing this time with you!

Jenny can be found in multiple places!
Amazon: Jenny Poelman
Facebook: @jennypoelmanauthor

Thanks to Jenny for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author or artist who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.


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