J.R. Whitten went from being a local probation officer for the Northern District of Texas to a published author. The Herald Democrat reached out to her for a question and answer session on her writing career and what inspired her. Below are her answers to those questions.
Her books, “A Thousand Fibers” and its sequel “Garment of Destiny,” focus on two women who are friends and colleagues working as federal probation officers. Her books can be found online as e-books as well as in paperback at major booksellers. There are local copies at the Pottsboro and Denison public libraries.
“Garment of Destiny” received the National Federation of Press Women award for fiction for adult readers, novels, at a ceremony on June 29. For more information, visit her website, www.jolenewhitten.com
Q: When did you start writing and when did you realize that you enjoyed doing it?
A: As a child, I often made up bed-time stories for my younger sister. In the fifth-grade, I co-wrote a play with fellow students, which we performed for our classmates. But beyond that, most of the writing I’ve done during my lifetime has consisted of papers for school or work-related reports. I didn’t start writing fiction until 2015, when I wrote my first novel, A Thousand Fibers. I enjoyed writing it but was actually pretty nervous about the idea of sharing it with others. Once I finished that first book, I started having ideas for another story, so kept on writing. I’ve found writing to be enjoyable and also a creative way to share ideas. More than that, since I started writing fiction, it’s something I feel compelled to do. I came across a quote by Maya Angelou that explains how I feel about writing: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Q: When did you decide you wanted to shift from law to writing? What specifically inspired you?
A: I was a U.S. Probation Officer, which as a federal law enforcement position, comes with mandatory retirement at age fifty-seven. So, after retirement, I began finding other ways to fill my time. I’ve always loved to read and decided to try my hand at writing. My first book was influenced quite a bit by my career, and by the people I encountered while working. Additionally, my personal experience with breast cancer and my appreciation of how connections with others helped me through that time, influenced the “Connections” theme present in both A Thousand Fibers and Garment of Destiny.
Q: How much of your previous work has influenced your writing? Are there any specific examples you’d like to share?
A: The two main characters in Garment of Destiny are Nicole Barker, a retired USPO, and her friend and former colleague, Gina West, who is still working as an officer. While these characters are fictional, they do have some experiences and interact with people similar to those from my experience. Additionally, like most working people, they have lives outside of their jobs, including families, friends, and other interests. Therefore, their lives tend to get stressful at times, something to which many of us can relate.
Q: How has being creative helped you? Can you describe the feeling that you get when you are thinking about your next piece as well as the feeling that you get when you are working on a piece?
A: I believe creativity has been essential in every area of my life – as a student, a teacher (briefly!), a probation officer, a parent, and in the hobbies and activities I enjoy. I have always loved exploring ideas and believe imagination is critical to improving the world and finding solutions to problems. I feel energized and excited when thinking about my next piece, and once I start working on it, I tend to become consumed with it. Now, does this mean I sit and write constantly? No! But I do spend a great deal of time thinking about the characters and what they might do next. I have found that a lot of ideas come to me while I’m taking a walk or driving. There are times when I feel like I just HAVE to write, that’s it’s just as important as breathing. I guess that sounds overly dramatic – it’s hard to explain. Of course, there are also times when writing can be frustrating; like any endeavor you just have to take the bad with the good.
Q: For individuals that have not yet found their creative outlet, how would you encourage them to learn what makes them happy?
A: Just try a lot of different outlets for your creativity. Focus on your individual strengths and what you enjoy. Find others who share your passion, and learn from them. And just spend a lot of time on your creative work. For example, if you’re talented at drawing, and drawing brings you joy, then draw as much as you can. Concentrate on your individual strengths and don’t try to be someone else. Don’t be afraid, and don’t ever think it’s too late to try something new. I was fifty- eight when I started writing my first book, and sixty when I published it. I didn’t know anything
about trying to get a publisher, so I did a little research and self-published. I will probably never write a best-seller, but that isn’t my goal. I just enjoy writing stories and sharing them with others. Of course, I wouldn’t be upset if I did have a best-seller!
Q: You should never stop learning. Can you tell me what you recently learned that you think will help you in the future?
A: Proof-reading and editing are critical. Also, the power of observation. Writer Anne Lamott recommends that writers keep index cards handy, so they can write down ideas, observations, and notes from conversations which might provide material for future writing. I have found that advice to be very useful. While I don’t always have an index card handy, I will often jot down notes on paper or on my phone.
Q: Where can people see your work in this area? What shows and competitions have you been in? What awards have you won? What was it like gaining recognition for your work?
A: The Pottsboro Library and the Denison Library both have my books. I entered Garment of Destiny in the 2019 Press Women of Texas Communications Contest and won first place in the category, Fiction for Adult Readers —Novels 40,000 Words and Up. The book was then entered at the national level and was awarded Honorable Mention by the National Federation of Press Women. Winning the awards was surprising and gratifying. The recognition made me feel like a bona fide writer!
Q: Describe your style in one word.
Q: Tell me about your process. Do you begin with the end in mind? Do you have a detailed plan? Or, do you let the project go where it needs to go? How do you know when you are done?
A: I begin with the characters and a general idea for the story. I’ve never known how the story would end until being pretty far into the book. It’s as if the characters let me know how the story should end. It’s interesting that you ask how I know when I’m done. A few years ago, I took some painting classes and the instructor told us that one of the most difficult aspects of creating a painting, is knowing when you’re done. I found that to be very true. Writer Anne Lamott has a chapter in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, titled “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” Here’s what Anne says: “This is a question my students always ask. I don’t quite know how to answer it. You just do.” I’ll rely on her expertise and agree with Anne’s response —you just do!
Q: What would you like for people to know about writing and the opportunities it can provide?
A: Writing is very fulfilling. It’s amazing to create a story in your mind, put it down in writing, and see it come together as a finished book. It’s very satisfying to work hard and have something concrete to show for it. I also like to think that with each book, I’ve learned more about writing and improved over time. I’ve enjoyed meeting other writers and learning from them; they’ve been great mentors. For example, Oklahoma cozy mystery author, Marion Moore Hill has encouraged and inspired me. I’ve also read a lot about writing, which has introduced me to other writers, and learned more about writing simply by continuing to read other authors’ novels. I’ve also learned a lot while researching various topics for my books, such as the issue of refugees in America for Garment of Destiny. I’ve met some interesting people I would not otherwise have met if I hadn’t started writing. So, writing has increased my ability to connect with people through the sharing of ideas, learning from others, and forming new friendships. While writing can be a very private and solitary endeavor, it also requires more social interaction than you might expect. I still feel a bit shy about activities involving the promotion of my books but I’ve learned to put myself out there, and find that most people respond warmly and favorably when they learn I’m a new writer. So, if you think you may want to try writing a book, I encourage you to do it. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll grow, you’ll find fulfillment, make new friends, and have fun.
I’m currently working on another book, titled Daisy’s Design, which I hope to publish this year.