Imagine waking up to find your spouse or lover missing or, worse, your children. Those moments captivate Jenny Milchman and her readers of her debut novel Cover of Snow (Random House) and her follow-up novel Ruin Falls . I met Jenny at the Woodstock Writer’s Festival where she spoke among authors, editors, and an agent on the publishing world. She stood out as the most articulate regarding a savvy author’s options and choices in the early 21st century.
In addition to the calibre of her mystery writing, what also intrigues me about Jenny is her passion for engaging her audience live.
Jenny, her husband, and their two children hit the road for seven months and landed in over 300 bookstores to talk story. She’s the first person I’ve heard use the word “car-school.”
Part of her back story, too, is how long she waited to get her first novel published. She held out. In one interview, she said that for several years, she pretended she had a writing career by getting up before her babes and writing. She wrote a novel a year. We’re grateful for that kind of devotion.
In this Books That Matter feature, she lets us in how she wished as a little girl she were poverty stricken, why she devours Stephen King novels, and why every child should read Of Mice and Men.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Jenny: It must’ve been about 1980. When did food processors come into widespread use? I went down to the kitchen, and my mom was using her brand new shining Cuisinart to slice or dice or chop something for dinner. I stared at her, horrified.
“Why aren’t you using a knife?” I asked.
I have no memory of what my mother did then. Do kids ever remember their parents’ roles as clearly as they do their own?
“Why aren’t you doing it the old-fashioned way?” I pressed on. And then I wailed, “Why can’t we be poverty stricken!”
My grandmother’s best friend gave me The Five Little Peppers & How They Grew when I was a child. I can still see her inscription, penned in a fragile hand. Dear Jenny, I know how much you love stories. I hope you will love this one.
And I did. I read The Five Little Peppers over and over, in that compulsory way unique to childhood reading. It took until adulthood for me to realize why I loved this book as ardently as I hated my mother’s new food processor, however. The Pepper family, who managed to be close and loving despite real privation, echoed my own experience of want as a child. The homespun details of a life are what makes up this story, and they comprised some of my happiest times at home as well, ones I wished would go on and on. I didn’t want any food processor to come along and make short work of them.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
How good the occasional raisin tasted in an otherwise plain bun.
The book you have imagined living inside of is what?
The book I imagined living inside of is Little House on the Prairie. I suppose we’re getting something of a theme going here. Back to basics. A life of simplicity (which is, of course, far from simple). Read on, and I may sound even more pioneer-like!
The character you still imagine being friends with is whom and why?
Betsy from Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy because she loved to read and make up stories. Jo from Little Women may have suited me in this respect as well.
The one book you have most often re-read is what?
Cujo because I think it’s sheer perfection in terms of structure: a domino row of plot turns that effect character and vice versa. Plus, isn’t it time to shake things up a bit? Yes, I loved tales of olden times and bygone days as a child. But there was also the me who begged to be allowed to read William Peter Blatty and Ira Levin and all the great horror writers of the seventies. Those were people who knew how to glue a reader to the page.
Oh, and nowadays? I almost never reread a book. It’s a pleasure lost to long ago.
What kinds of books are you most appreciating or seeking these days?
Psychological thrillers with finely wrought language and an ear for dialogue, such as those by Michael Koryta or Nancy Pickard or Tana French or Gregg Hurwitz.
You will read anything written by whom?
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper?
I read 100% of my books on paper. For me a screen does not work as portal to another world.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
In a—French—word or phrase: La plus ca change. I think that the speed, convenience, and ease of use posed by Amazon, as well as the democratizing factor of today’s self-publishing, are valuable things, and readers and writers may well be better off for them. But I also think that these changes serve only to highlight the necessity of gatekeepers and the immense wisdom, passion, and skill amassed by publishers, booksellers, and reviewers. We are lucky to live in a world that has both.
Which book would you want every child to read?
Of Mice & Men teaches a lesson of perspective and that we are the author of our own story. No one else can write it for us. Really any book by John Steinbeck would do in this capacity—and many others, including showing any child growing up in the US the country that s/he comes from.
The little-known book you most relish and champion is what?
Winifred by Doris Miles Disney. This book has the single most breathtaking last line of any I’ve ever read. It’s a line that takes the entire story you’ve just finished, and makes it come clear in one shining glass sword of a skewer (to overtax my metaphor).
The book you are most embarrassed to say you’ve never read is what?
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I’m pretty sure it would scare me like nothing by Stephen King ever could.
The one thing I hope readers of my new novel, As Night Falls,come away with is what?
Something they’ve always hoped to come away with. The beauty of books—as Books That Matter demonstrates—is that each one means something different to every reader. I can’t begin to predict what As Night Falls will give a reader—and I wouldn’t want to. That is the miracle of books, how like prisms in the sun, they refract infinitely.
But I do hope one thing. I hope that people who read As Night Falls will tell me what it meant to them. Because that’s why we do this thing, isn’t it? With every word we write, we hope and pray and strive and yearn to create something that matters.
JENNY MILCHMAN is the author of Cover of Snow, which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Ruin Falls, and her new novel, As Night Falls, is forthcoming this June. Jenny lives in the Hudson River Valley with her family. To learn more about Jenny, visit jennymilchman.com.