Jennifer Erin Valent: The Calloway Summer Series

10sm[1]I’m thrilled to welcome author Jennifer Erin Valent to my blog. Jennifer is an encouraging friend and author who has a contest win under her belt and three unforgettable novels to her name.

Her first novel, Fireflies in December, won the Christian Writers Guild “Operation First Novel” Contest in 2007. The second book in the Calloway Summer Series, Cottonwood Whispers, was published in 2009, and the third book, Catching Moondrops, was published in 2010.

I only discovered Jennifer’s books last year, but I read through the series voraciously, with a growing affection for the colorful cast of characters and sizzling southern setting. I own all three in paperback, and I’m not parting with them. The covers are lovely, nostalgic representations of an era gone by.

Jennifer set the series in the early 1930s. Main character Jessilyn Lassiter and best friend Gemma forge an unlikely friendship in the racially-charged town of Calloway, Virginia. After a tragedy, Gemma, who is black, comes to live with Jessilyn and her parents on their farm, a decision that catches the unwanted attention of the local Ku Klux Klan and sets off a series of events that change all their lives.

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Fireflies in December is an evocative portrayal of hatred ultimately overpowered by the sure foundation of family and faith. Jennifer writes thirteen-year-old Jessilyn with an engaging, humorous first person point of view; one of the reasons I enjoyed this trilogy so much is Jessie’s strong-willed personality shining through on each page.

Sometimes I wanted to shake her; other times we might’ve high-fived.

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Cottonwood Whispers continues with Jessie and Gemma’s enduring, complicated friendship, detailing Jessie’s growing crush on neighbor and older friend Luke Talley and Gemma’s burgeoning need for independence. Before reading Cottonwood Whispers I wondered if the second book could pack the punch of emotion and truth that Fireflies did.

Silly me.

I might even say Cottonwood Whispers was my favorite, except that the last book was even better. Indeed, the stories build on each other in a remarkable way because the reader gets to know and care deeply for the characters, seeing them through life-changing conflict.

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Third and last book Catching Moondrops was especially fulfilling for my romantic sap self; Jennifer tied the romance strings into a beautiful bow of sweetness tempered with reality — Jessie’s still as strong-willed as ever, and the chemistry between nineteen-year-old Jessie and loyal, protective Luke is sigh-inducing. She also concludes Jessilyn’s complicated spiritual journey in a realistic way.

***

K: Have you always loved writing? Do you have a favorite childhood story or character?

J: Growing up, writing was only a hobby for me, and most of the time I didn’t complete my ideas. I had a notebook I’d write in that was pretty much a jumble of starts without finishes. A few times while I was in school I managed to finish a short story, but besides those the only thing I can remember finishing was a fiction assignment for English class. Fortunately, that all changed once the writing bug really bit!

My all-time favorite character when I was a kid was Nancy Drew. I read as many of those as I could get my hands on. For me there was nothing like settling in to see what trouble Nancy would get herself into next.

K: When you began writing Fireflies in December, did you know it would be a trilogy? And was it as difficult to write that last few pages, as it was to read it? (I seriously dreaded finishing the last chapter.)

J: I originally considered making Jessilyn’s story fit into one novel, but the further along I got I realized it was either split the story up into a series or have people lugging around something the size of Gone With the Wind. In some ways a series was a fun alternative because I’d be able to revisit Calloway County over an extended period of time, but in other ways it was tough to have to leave things unfinished when I typed THE END on book one and two.

Finishing off the trilogy was both satisfying and depressing for me. I had been writing about those characters for several years, and it was very much like saying goodbye to old friends. I wasn’t at all excited to give them up, but at the same time I knew it was the right time to finish the series. No matter how much time passes, those characters will always hold a special place in my heart.

K: I’m going out on a limb here, but winning the “Operation First Novel” Contest must’ve been slightly exciting. Please share with us what it was like learning you had won.

J: You know, it was extremely exciting, but after quite a few years trying to get published I was so overwhelmed and amazed by having achieved that goal I don’t think I was completely coherent. People who talked to me for a few days after the win would probably confirm that. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience. I heard my name called as the winner, managed to get onstage without falling on my face, but much of the time directly afterward was fuzzy. And the uncertainty about what was next only added to the nerves. It’s a big step, and there aren’t many books and articles out there about what comes after signing that contract, so there were a lot of questions running through my mind alongside all the exciting ideas.

 K: I really enjoyed the first person POV (point of view) in these stories. Jessilyn is strong-willed and passionate, often charging headstrong into situations with her emotions leading the way. Her maturation from age thirteen to nineteen (the time span for the three books) was beautifully done and realistic; did that flow naturally while writing the series? 

J: In a lot of ways I’m like Jessilyn. I didn’t fully realize that right away as I wrote, but I am. I think that’s why I was able to write her character so easily. When you construct and flesh out characters in a novel, you have to climb into their shoes and think about how they would respond in each situation. Considering that Jessilyn and I wear almost the same size, it wasn’t so hard to take a walk in her footsteps.

K: One of my favorite aspects of this trilogy is the gentle way that Jessie’s faith sprouts with questions and observation of others, then blossoms near the series’ end. I almost caught myself praying for her heart to soften to the Lord during parts of the story. How important was it to show this spiritual growth?  

J: First of all, I love that you felt inclined to pray for Jessie. There’s nothing like knowing my characters came alive for a reader like that.

J: My main goal with Jessie’s spiritual growth was to point out that being around Christians, going to church, reading the Bible… none of it acquires salvation. That genuine repentance, and thereby a true relationship with the Lord, takes place when we as individuals come to believe the truth in our hearts, even if we’ve heard about it our whole lives. There’s a difference between knowledge and deep understanding, and Jessie finds that out. She can hear it all and see it all, but until it takes root inside of her, it isn’t real, and she knows that.

One of my favorite moments in her spiritual journey is in Cottonwood Whispers when Jessie asks Miss Cleta why she can’t figure out how to believe, and Miss Cleta tells her, “Oh, honey, just sayin’ that tells me Whose you are. You just don’t know it yet. If you want to believe, someday you will. You just wait. God’ll open your heart when you least expect it, and He’ll take that wide-open heart of yours and fill it up with believin’ till there ain’t no room left.”

Salvation is a conscious choosing to believe, to repent, and to humble yourself at the feet of the One who gave His life for yours. My hope was to convey that as clearly as possible through Jessie’s experience.

K: Your dialogue is sharp and witty and replete with southern twang. Was it tough to write in that old-fashioned southern dialect?

J: Well, here in Virginia you still hear folks droppin’ their Gs. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve heard a lot of different Southern accents (including my own!) so I had that advantage when writing the dialogue. Sometimes I had to go internet hunting to try to find out when certain phrases became commonplace, things like that. But all in all I’d say I naturally heard their voices in my head as I wrote.

K: Miss Cleta is my favorite secondary character. She’s full of sass and spiritual wisdom, the perfect guiding light Jessilyn needed during her turbulent adolescence. Do you have a favorite character from this series?

J: I share your sentiment about Miss Cleta. I’ve often said I want to be her when I grow up. I adore her. She’s one tough cookie… who makes a darn good cookie, too! I love that she’s sweet and funny and full of wisdom… and if you mess with her or someone she loves she’ll whip out her shotgun. That’s my kind of lady!

K: Lastly, do you have any writing projects you’re working on that you’d like to share with readers?

J: My latest finished manuscript follows the journey of a young war widow in the late 1940’s as she attempts to get beyond her abusive past. It’s an important story to me and one that I want so much to get out to readers. So many women know what it’s like to be mistreated in their relationships, and this story encourages them to move beyond that pain and find their identity in Christ alone.

My agent is at work seeking a publishing home for the book, and, prayerfully, we’ll be able to find the perfect place for it soon.  

~ Quick Questions ~

Any pets? Not now, but I had a Shetland Sheepdog when I was a kid.

Favorite Holiday? Christmas, definitely.

A color we’ll never see you wear? Lime green. Turns my skin lime green… not the best look.

Night owl or mourning dove? Mourning dove

A book you’ll never part with? Well, the obvious answer is the Bible. Try to take that from me, and I’ll go all Miss Cleta on you. As for fiction, the one book I’ve kept the longest is a copy of Victoria Holt’s Pride of the Peacock. It’s one I’ve read a bunch of times, and I just like to have it handy.

Favorite way to spend a lazy day? On the beach with a book.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog, Jennifer! Readers, if you’re interested in purchasing Jennifer’s books, click on the book pictures above. You can also find Jennifer here.

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