At Romantic Times, I sat next to Jodi Thomas on the contemporary romance panel I wrote about earlier, and because I'm horrible, I got all up in her business about her position as Writer in Residence at West Texas A&M University.
A romance author as a writer in residence? That's awesome! Thomas is only the second writer to fill the post. Prior to Thomas, the writer in residence was Loula Grace Erdman, who wrote novels about the settlement of the Texas Panhandle.
I thought the idea of a romance author serving as writer in residence was very cool, so I asked Ms. Thomas if she'd put up with all sorts of nosy questions. Fortunately for me, she agreed, and I think this is a wonderfully inspiring interview.
Let's start with basic questions: How long have you been the writer in residence?
What responsibilities does that involve?
I work a 9 month contract and I get to pick the three months each year that I take off, but I love my job so I usually work most of the year. All that is asked of me is that I keep four and one half hours a week of office hours so students can come by.
I usually work four days a week, sometimes five, from about 9-4. I give about 100 talks a year to professional organizations, schools, colleges, writing groups, libraries, red hat groups, book clubs, and all kinds of clubs. I also take on one intern a semester. He or she gets graduate credit and works about 5 hrs a week in office learning the business of writing and doing research, keeping lists, hauling books, etc. Then the intern and I spend 2-3 hours a week working on his work. During the semester he or she will usually finish a novel. I also teach a one week class at the West Texas A&M Writing Academy in June. I move in the dorm and take a dozen people through a course in advance writing in one week. We go from breakfast until a movie at night where we define plot structure.
Once the president of the university did an evaluation and said: Jodi Thomas defined her job as Writer in Residence and does it quite well.
I love it the way I love writing and it’s not a job, it’s who I am.
Have your students or fellow professors made mention of your being a romance author – good or not so good?
I was teaching on the high school level when I first sold. Several of the teachers made fun of the little home economics teacher who sold a book. But one, Mr. Biggers, stood in line to be first and my first signing. I think he knew what it took to be a writer and he admired that drive. I have no idea if he ever read the book but it meant a great deal to me that he didn’t make fun of me.
The first time I spoke to a college class the professor asked me to come on a day he couldn’t be there. When I started I noticed no one was paying any attention. After a few minutes I begin pulling out books. Hardbacks, paperbacks, foreign novels of mine. One girl asked, “Did you write those?” When I said yes, everyone started paying attention. The professor had told the class that someone was speaking who thought she was a writer, but she wrote romance. A year later the same professor asked me to come to a critique group. I went to be polite and was excited to finally be accepted. Like most WIR I felt like I stood outside of the circle of faculty on campus. After I read, he said he thought he could help me, after all, he’d been publishing articles in the paper for years. I told him thank you and left. At that time I was already a national bestseller of 16 books and that week had hit the NYT at number 16. He hadn’t bothered to ask.
I learned after that that I was the lucky one to walk away that day. None of the group as ever published for money. As for me, the man who delivers supplies reads all my books, the president and his wife never miss one, all over campus people tell me how much they love my books. I’m writing to entertain, to take the person on a journey they’ll enjoy after they’ve had a long day in the real world. I’m not writing for the English department. I don’t even care if my interns are majoring in English. I’m waiting for that young Stephen King to walk in my office with his first manuscript and tell me he wants to sell and all I’ll say is, “Lets go to work.”
What unique perspective do you think you bring to the students as a romance author?
I know people. I don’t call the people in my books characters. I call the people because, for me, they are.
One of my interns dropped by my office the other day and said, “I still hear you when I’m writing—yelling at me to write deeper. Dig deeper into the character.”
People are not cardboard characters to be stood up and described down to their nose hair. They need to breathe, and feel, and hurt, and care. I promise you even the best looking guy will ugly up if he’s brain dead.
The stories that we’ve loved to read were the ones where we traveled with characters who breathed. We went along through any journey, through any time, because we cared.
I just loved the answers Jodi Thomas gave to these questions. I can imagine the students at West Texas A&M are lucky to have her as an instructor. Who encouraged you when you were in school? What professor or teacher had the most positive effect on you?
I wonder if there are other romance author writers-in-residence out there. Do you know of any?