Environmental advocacy, writing and champagne soccer with Penelope Janu
Rural romance author, Penelope Janu, threads a love of the environment and horses through all her stories, with her latest novel – Starting From Scratch – tying both themes together in a warm, fresh and fun read. With a natural bent towards educating readers, Janu makes us care for the characters and their causes. Sapphie Brown has all she needs in Horseshoe Hill; a teaching job, a role helping delinquent youths through horse therapy and a position on the local environmental advocacy committee. But when Matts Laaksonen comes to town, with Nordic good looks, a short and sometimes abrupt Finnish manner and a diplomatic posting that could bring much-needed funding for their wetlands, she has no choice but to face her difficult past.
The extent of their shared history is gently revealed throughout the story, and readers are roped into Sapphie’s troubled past, the farmhouse she so keenly wants to buy, and the secrets that bind Sapphie and Matts together. I also really liked the botanical themes and the main character’s hobby of crafting paper flowers.
Multi-award-winning author, Penelope Janu has published five novels and a novella, and with a background in law, also writes a regular ‘Legal Beagle’ column for Romance Writers Australia. Having practised as a solicitor, she spent much of her career as a legal academic at a large university. A proud mother of six, Penelope also took up football in her forties and managed the team. Their coach was a captain in the Australian Navy, teaching them resilience (as they lost a lot of games) and the art of celebration, with champagne before kick-off each Mother’s Day. Starting From Scratch was released by Harlequin on January 6 in eBook and paperback.
Short and sweet questions
Current book on your bedside table:
A (multiple) re-read of Jane Austen’s Persuasion for my current WIP, and David Howarth’s We Die Alone (a non-fiction book about Nazi occupied Norway).
Where do you do most of your writing?
As a floating writer, I write at the kitchen bench, dining table, desk in the study, sitting on my bed with my feet up, in cafés and in the car. My son calls my laptop ‘My Precious’ (after Frodo and Gollum’s ring in The Lord of the Rings) because I need to have it close.
Favourite Australian holiday destination:
My best holiday memories have been at the beach with my family, and since we tend to go to different destinations every year, I’ll simply say blue oceans, white waves, golden sands and bright Australian skies.
What’s your preferred drop?
Immediately after our babies were born, my husband knew to take the little bundles from the midwife so I could have a cup of tea. I’d have to say tea.
Reading until four in the morning to finish a romance novel. Holding onto a happy ending in the solitude of dawn is well worth the price of a few hours sleep.
Leaf blowers! Sweeping is far more efficient and much more environmentally friendly!
Favourite fictional couple and why?
John Thornton and Margaret Hale from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. There were so many reasons this couple shouldn’t have been right for each other (the class divide, social upheaval, misunderstandings, his brusqueness, her distrust...) but love triumphs in the end.
If you could pack two non-essential items for a deserted tropical island, what would they be?
A deckchair (to set up in the shade so I can read a book).
My husband. Nonessential but curiously essential.
Name an emerging author to keep an eye out for:
Brigitte Legeron, who writes romance, and has also written a beautiful memoir. The talented Nancy Cunningham who writes contemporary and historical fiction. Both are RWA members and extremely committed.
Book you’re most looking forward to reading in 2021?
My daughter Tamsin is a children’s author (middle grade fiction published by Scholastic). I’ve read her latest manuscript and LOVED it, but she just says, ‘Oh Mum, you love everything. The publisher might hate it!’ I would like to see this book on the shelves in 2021 so I can say, ‘I told you it was good!’
Best thing about being a writer?
Receiving beautiful messages and emails from readers telling me my books were important to them at stressful or difficult times in their lives.
Worst thing about being a writer?
Author angst. I should worry less about how to write, what to write and how it will be received, but I doubt I ever will. I’m a worrier by nature, my marketing skills are woeful, and I find writing (and criticism of what I’ve written) a very personal thing. All these elements make writing hard. On the bright side, the highs are really high!
Do you prefer music, podcasts or silence when writing?
I can listen to music when writing, but not when editing (I’m not sure why there is a distinction—maybe my cries of distress while editing don’t want to compete with background noise). I listen to soft rock or hard pop on Spotify (my kids can’t see the distinction) because I love the mix of seventies and eighties classics, and more recent music too.
Favourite perfume: Christian Dior’s Miss Dior. I don’t wear a lot of perfume when I go out, but I do wear it at home.
David Tennant. He’s unconventionally attractive but when he’s on the screen—in so many different roles and guises—I find him compelling.
The best non-writing related prize I won was…
I once won a copy of James Herriot’s book All Creatures Great and Small in a competition held in David Jones. I was horrifically embarrassed that I’d answered all the questions correctly, because I would have been twelve and the announcer made such a fuss about it. When I won the book I’d correctly answered the questions about, I remember thinking how ridiculous it was. I’d obviously read the book already, so why give me the book again as a prize?
Top three tips for aspiring authors?
A writer’s voice is unique—as is the story and the way the writer tells the story.
I think it’s useful for a writer to write about characters or situations they find inherently interesting. I am a very slow writer so it takes me ages to write a paragraph let alone a page, and I edit as I go so that slows things down more. I spend a lot of time with my characters and situations—if I didn’t care about them or wasn’t interested in what they were up to, I’d find it impossible to keep going.
If possible, a writer should set aside time to write, and write even when they don’t feel like it. Words are never wasted—even if they aren’t words that will stay in the book, they have led us to where we need to go to finish our story.
Can I slip in one more? Writing friends and colleagues are essential!
What theme do you hope shines through in your writing?
Coastal or rural, I set my stories in locations that I (and my characters!) care about, so the environment plays an important role in my novels. Because my heroines have often suffered trauma or hardship, I do my best to create respectful, loving and kind heroes who will ultimately be worthy of them.
Proudest author moment?
Without a doubt, winning the Romance Writers of Australia’s RuBY award for On the Right Track. I was absolutely delighted. I am still delighted. I will always be delighted!
My favourite thing about writing romance is ….
Getting to spend time with the characters I will typically fall in love with by the end of the novel, and enjoying the friendship and camaraderie of my friends in the writing community.
If anyone gives me flack about writing romance, I tell them…
Romance novels are about the important things in life—characters and relationships and place and hope and grief and loss and laughter and falling in love. I make no apology for them.
Three fun facts about the author
My dad was in the air force and taught me how to iron a shirt: shoulders, back, fronts (button panel then button hole panel) sleeves, cuffs, collar. I am an excellent ironer, which might be why I enjoy ironing. Or maybe it’s because I talk on the phone or listen to podcasts or plot when I iron, and I like doing these things too!
Three years ago, I walked from England’s west to east coast (320km in 14 days), and two years ago I walked 230km around Mt Blanc (Switzerland, Italy and France). I have mountain goat tendencies.
When I was at university, I worked in a chicken shop. A very handsome northern beaches actor (the helicopter pilot from Skippy) used to come into the shop every Saturday and innocently ask for ‘two whole breasts’ (as opposed to ‘two half breasts’ which were also very popular). Three of us worked in the shop (and the boss didn’t work on Saturdays)—the work was messy and hard but we always had Tony Bonner to look forward to and chatted and laughed all day.
Find Penelope online
Exciting news, folks! In 2021 I’ll be sharing the RWA blog with fellow rural romance author, Stella Quinn. Stella’s debut novel is out this winter and her author interviews will be published every alternate month under the banner Fabulous Fiction With Stella Quinn. Here’s a little more about Stella, and keep your eyes peeled for her interview with Alissa Callen next month.
Stella Quinn writes contemporary romance novels that are warm-hearted and filled with characters you want to be best friends with. She loves rural small-town settings, island settings, and everyday heroes. Imagine if Sea Change and Virgin River had a series of fictitious book-babies ... they’re the books Stella writes. Her rural romance, The Vet from Snowy River, is being published by Harlequin and will be in a bookshop near you in June 2021.