Updated: May 11, 2021
My name is Jen, and I’m an attorney, published landscape and nature photographer, history buff, and lover of green herons living in Ohio, USA. My debut novel, Five Fathoms Beneath, is a loose adaptation of Loren Eiseley’s famous essay, “The Star Thrower.” It’s a story which focuses on the invisibility of mental illness, suicide among doctors, the relationship between a father and son, and how we treat one another. It’s also a story about how we all can make a difference in the world, even if it seems like the world’s problems are impossible to solve or we have obstacles of our own to overcome.
When did you realise that you wanted to write and publish a book?
They say every writer starts out a reader, and for me that was 100% true. I’ve always loved to read; for that, I thank my mother for reading to me before I could read myself. I also enjoyed taking courses in literature as an undergrad, and I had a wonderful professor, Dr. Mike Dolzani, who had the ability to make the classics like Shakespeare and Homer accessible and relevant.
But I actually decided to write a book while I was undergoing treatment for advanced stage cancer in 2007. I know it sounds cliché, but I put together a “bucket list” of things I wanted to do if I survived. Photograph a wild bald eagle, run a marathon, write a book, eat a pint of ice cream in a single sitting—hey, no one said all the items on a “bucket list” need to be noteworthy or noble! Since I’m a history buff, I figured if I ever wrote a book, it would be a non-fiction tome about the American Civil War or a foray into historical fiction. But no topic ever captured my interest to the extent I wanted to actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) until a few years ago when I came up with the idea for Five Fathoms Beneath.
I realize there’s some danger in admitting your first novel was a “bucket list item,” but I hope people won’t dismiss my novel as “just” a bucket list item. I truly believe in Five Fathoms Beneath’s message. If I wanted to just cross an item off a list, I would have chosen something far easier to write about.
Okay, so you have decided to write a book, where did you start? Research? A scene that came to you? A character that you dreamed up? Tell us what got the ball rolling.
The initial idea for Five Fathoms Beneath came from watching political debates play out on the internet. It is still common and acceptable, even among people who consider themselves “woke” or “progressive,” to use mental illness as a pejorative or to fear monger. I wanted to write a story which highlighted the invisibility of mental illness and attacked the cruel and stigmatizing stereotype that people with mental illness are inherently dysfunctional and violent.
Without divulging too much personal information, I have firsthand experience with bipolar disorder and depression, but I didn’t want to base the novel only on my own experiences, so I started out by researching mental illness and suicide. Early in my research, I came across an article about the high incidence rate of suicide among medical doctors. There’s relatively little written on the topic, which isn’t surprising when you consider a mental illness diagnosis can adversely impact a doctor’s career. As someone outside the medical profession, however, I could write freely about the topic, without anyone assuming I was writing about myself or a colleague.
As a writer, I’m very much of a “pantser” versus a “plotter,” and although I knew how the novel would begin and end, and some intermediate steps it would take along the way, I otherwise wrote on the fly, letting the story unravel naturally.
Once you had started, how long did the process take?
I have a full-time job, so I must sneak in writing time when I can. It took me roughly four years and seven drafts to complete Five Fathoms Beneath.
What were the things along the way that both helped and hindered you during the writing of this book?
For me, the biggest help was finding a handful of truly excellent beta readers early in the process who were constructively critical, yet also positive and encouraging.
The biggest hindrance was all the negativity on the internet, especially about how it’s “impossible” to find an agent/publisher.
Did the process of writing this book come naturally to you? Did it run smoothly? Or was it an uphill battle?
For the most part, the writing ran smoothly once I had the narrator’s voice down. Certain scenes required more work than others, and occasionally, I’d have to stop altogether and do research when I decided I wanted to take the plot in a certain direction or when I wasn’t sure of something. Also, I have no creative writing background whatsoever, so I had to learn how to do truly rudimentary things, like formatting dialogue properly.
Set the scene. When you sat down to write, where were you? What did you need to help you? Did you have a routine with your writing? Tell us what was conducive to a successful writing session.
You know those writers who sit in a coffee shop and write? That’s so not me. I need silence to write (although instrumental music is ok when I’m editing), so I wrote my entire novel at home at my desk on my trusty Macbook Pro. Since I live in Cleveland, Ohio, the scene outside the window could be sunny, rainy, snowy, or windy, or all of the above in the same day.
What parts of the story did you find the hardest to write?
Writing a novel about depression was emotionally exhausting because I drew on my own experiences to (hopefully) lend the novel a level of authenticity. But in terms of specific scenes, the toughest to write was Alec’s death. I agonized over whether and how to show his death; reading about suicide can trigger suicidal thoughts in people who are sensitive or in a dark place (and that’s why my novel contains a content warning at the beginning), but at the same time, to prevent suicide, we need to be able to talk frankly about it. As hard as that scene is to read, it was even harder to write.
Did you enjoy the process and is it something that you plan to do again?
I like to write, but I figured out during the process I enjoy editing and helping other authors more than I like writing myself. Right now, I don’t have another idea for a novel, but I’m sure that could change. For now, I’m just enjoying doing some beta reading and helping out other writers.
Whilst you were writing the book, what inspired you? What made you keep at it and not push delete?
I’m stubborn. If I start something, I almost always finish it. Beyond that, what kept me going was all those heartbreaking stories I had read about doctors who took their lives. I wanted to give these physicians, and everyone who suffers from depression and mental illness, really, a voice.
John Green wrote in his Author’s Note to The Fault In Our Stars that a fundamental assumption of our species is made-up stories can matter. One of the themes I explored in my novel is Loren Eiseley’s story of the man who walks on a beach tossing back stranded starfish, even though he knows he will never be able to save them all. The idea is even if you can’t completely change the world, you still matter. You can still help. And you can still help even if you have problems yourself. I really do believe novels have the power to affect and change us; I realize my reach with an indie novel might end up being quite short, but if reading Five Fathoms Beneath positively effects even just one person, if it inspires them to to step up and help others who are experiencing distress and pain or even just to rethink how they write and talk about mental illness, then that’s a starfish tossed on my part and the time and effort I put into the novel was worth it.
Now the book is written, finished and published, is there anything looking back that you would have done differently?
I wish I had tried to query and tested the traditional publishing waters, mostly because indie literary fiction is such a hard sell.
Did you find the cover design part of the process difficult or enjoyable? And what were the feelings and emotions of handing your creation over to someone else to have the cover designed?
I do photography as a serious hobby, so I’m a visual person. For that reason, I was really excited about the chance to work with a cover designer. Before I chose Tim and Dissect Designs, I spent a lot of time looking at book covers, designer websites, and thinking about what mood and imagery I wanted my cover to convey. I also considered a design contest on 99Designs, but ultimately decided I wanted to work one-on-one with a designer.
The actual process of having the cover designed was fun. I chose Tim and DD because I felt like he had the skill set to create the kind of cover I envisioned, and I liked the copy on his website; I saw him as being someone I would enjoy working with. And I was correct!
That said, like most indie authors, I like control. So, handing over the cover design to a stranger, even one as clearly competent and talented as Tim, was nerve wracking. But I recognized the cover would be my book’s biggest marketing tool, and I wanted something professional and high quality, something which reflected all the time and effort I put into my story. Tim took my general idea, put his own spin on it, and created something simply jaw dropping and awesome. He nailed my design on the first try; we only ended up making one trivial change. But if he hadn’t nailed it on the first time, I knew he was open to trying another idea. All in all, the whole experience was very positive, and I have no regrets over hiring, and trusting, Tim.
Is there any advice that you would like to offer anybody reading this who is currently writing, or thinking of writing a book?
To those considering writing a book … You’re going to be spending a lot of time - probably more than you can imagine right now - with your plot, setting, and characters. Make sure you’re writing about something you enjoy or feel passionate about. And even if you’re an introvert, be open to joining a writing forum or group. That’s where you’ll find people who can recommend editors, beta readers, proofreaders, cover designers, and formatters. It’s also where you’ll find your tribe – the people who understand what the writing life is all about.
Check out the amazing novel by J.R Alcyone. A beautifully written story that will captivate you from the first page.
You can follow J.R Alcyone at
Cover designed by DISSECT DESIGNS
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