About 4.5 years ago, I read a book that I’d requested from Netgalley because I’d found the premise to be super interesting. Until this, my experience or even impression of sites like Netgalley hadn’t been great. But this book, called House of Rougeax, turned it around fantastically well, becoming one of my favorite books of 2018. Here’s a little excerpt from my review of the book:
“House of Rougeaux has a simple story. But in this simplicity lies a heartbreak and warmth that cannot possibly be explained in words. As the book progressed, a heaviness settled in my heart. There is no pronounced bad guy in the entire story. Yet the heart clenches, and the gut wrenches in pain. The amazingly beautiful writing style makes you go ever the closer to crying. If you like stories of hope and love, this is the one for you.”
If you’d like to read the full review, follow this link: House of Rougeaux by Jenny Jaeckel.
I was so mesmerized by the writing and the story that I immediately approached the author, Jenny Jaeckel, for an interview. But things happened and I couldn’t publish it here even though Jenny was prompt in sending her answers. I decided to try my luck again and Jenny, being the sweetest person, agreed to do it. A big thank you, Jenny, for this!
Read on for one of the most wholesome interviews I’ve ever published on my blog!
(A lot of House of Rougeax content in here.)
(MB: Melodramatic Bookworm; JJ: Jenny Jaeckel)
MB: What has your journey been like since House of Rougeaux?
JJ: House of Rougeaux was first published in 2018 by Raincloud Press which unfortunately closed down just before the pandemic—sadly, it’s not uncommon for indie presses to bite the dust. I signed with another indie publisher, Black Rose Writing, who put out House of Rougeaux in paperback (2021) and also the sequel/companion book, Boy, Falling, that same year. Doing promotion for two books at once was a whirlwind – and not my favorite part of being a writer – but I did learn a lot.
MB: How has the pandemic affected or changed the way you see the world and write?
JJ: The pandemic has undoubtedly changed us all to different degrees, and the whole world in ways we are still discovering. I think most of us feel like it has marked time in a before-and-after sense that is rare to experience collectively. For me personally I’d say the pandemic has made me seek stability in ways that are more internal and/or relational—internally by using contemplative practices to regulate my emotions, and relationally in terms of tending to my relationships with more care and attention.
MB: Connecting the dots between so many generations in House of Rougeaux must have been quite difficult. What was your thought process like and how did you keep track?
JJ: The process of writing the novel was very much like a game of dot to dot, where much of the time a minor character in one section became the protagonist in the next, and so on, even when the passage of time became non-linear between the chapters. Still, I wanted the book to have coherence, and to make thematic sense, and for themes and lines in the family to be clear and linked, so after following the dots for a while, I began to double back and make the connections that seemed most important. Being able to move forward and backward in time helped with that.
MB: Are any of the events described in the book based on or inspired from real life events?
JJ: Many of the larger events and conditions surrounding the characters come directly from history, things like the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, the draft for the Vietnam War and the race riots in the 1960’s, slavery and its eventual abolition, etc. The individual stories of the characters, though, are fictional, and are meant to be unique stories that could really have happened given their historical contexts, and the particular qualities of the people.
MB: How easy was it writing about a time in which racism and sexism were rampant?
JJ: Not easy at all! All of these forms of oppression are so complex, have formed so much of our history, and form so much of our present era, I found it incredibly challenging to bring any of it to the page. As writers, I think we have to be extremely diligent in our research, dig extremely deep in our imaginations, and seek readers for feedback who can be very critical about what we are doing. We also have to be constantly self-reflective in examining our own notions and motives. Invariably, what we produce will be far from perfect, and at some point we have to throw down our pen and say, “That was the best I could do.” But if we’re lucky, after all that, the work will have value, and that will transfer to the readership.
MB: All the characters in House of Rougeaux are strong, though sometimes helpless, making them realistic. Tell us about how you form your characters? Do they come before or after the story’s plot points? Or do you think that a story and its characters are inseparable?
JJ: I seem to always start with some notion of the character, usually in a certain physical setting, someone that waves their hand in the air, like “Follow me!” And then, when I go where they lead, more of their character reveals itself, and the story reveals itself. I do think stories and characters are inseparable, at least in my experience of writing. Put a different character in the same circumstances and a different story will result. Developing the characters, for me, is a very intimate process of trying to get to know them, rather than creating them. Some of them are easier to get close to than others, some can be stand-offish, but if they are, and that’s their nature, then it’s my job to try to write what is true for them.
MB: How much research did it take you to bring House of Rougeaux to completion? Were you happy with your first draft?
JJ: I wrote House of Rougeaux over the course of about two years, with constant research throughout, that amounted to reading numerous books and articles, and looking up countless little factoids. Given that each section of the book takes place in a different time period, each section required its own research. I was reasonably happy with my first draft, but then I had the incredibly good fortune to work with the book’s principal editor, Neesa Sonoquie, who took the manuscript and turned it into absolute confetti, and then said, in very elaborate terms, “Fix this.” That was a hugely growthful process for me as a writer, and it took the work to a whole new level.
MB: Racism was common during the early times. What goes through your mind when you hear of such incidents happening in the modern world?
JJ: Minor incidents of racism can be incredibly disheartening, and the major ones completely devastating. Beyond these incidents though, racism is so heavily embedded into our psyches and institutions and laws and behaviors, it’s often very had to know how to respond. As a writer, one of the reasons I wanted to write Rougeaux, was to create protagonists whose lives are intrinsically effected by these forces, but who are also beautiful and human and heroic in their own ways, and perhaps above all, resilient and loving. I believe literature has a role to play in making the world less blind and more just, and I hope in some way my work can contribute to that effort.
MB: Is a new Jenny Jaeckel book in the works? If yes, what genre is it?
JJ: Yes! I have a new book published this year (2022) called Eighteen. It is very different from my historical fiction books, in that it is a contemporary coming-of-age story set in the late 1980s/early 1990s–for some that would still be historical fiction! —and is written in the first-person voice of a young girl, Talia, who is quirky and observant and discovering many things for the first time. Eighteen is also a love story that explores relationships and sexuality in intimate and revealing ways.
MB: A genre that you really want to write in?
JJ: That is a great question. I’ve worked in a handful of genres so far: memoir, graphic novel, comics, short fiction, historical fiction novels, and the one coming-of-age novel. Occasionally I have an idea for a sci-fi story, but I don’t think I have what it takes to actually write science fiction.
MB: What’s one place you’d love to visit the most, just because you’d love to write about it?
JJ: Another great question. When I was a kid, I wanted to be abducted by aliens (nice ones of course, who would return me to my home unharmed). Maybe now I’d like to visit another world via a fantastical dream, where things are different in unexpected ways, even if the differences are subtle. I think visiting an alternate universe where lots of things are just a little bit different might be the strangest of all.
MB: Who are your favorite authors? And your favorite books? Which book gives you the most hope and inspired you? Who has been the most recent author to become your favorite? And a book that has impacted you?
JJ: I have been inspired by countless authors, but I always seem to keep coming back to the same few, for their ability to use language in such unique and specific ways, to create worlds and characters that are incredibly vivid, and to tell stories with such heart and soul -–all at the same time: Eduardo Galeano, Merce Rodoreda, Edith Wharton and J.D. Salinger are constant favorites. Lately I am very inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, not in the sense of giving me hope exactly, but by their ability to strike the absolute truth of something, and the absolute ring that that strike produces.
I recently read The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and fell in love with it, and also Nadiya Hussain’s memoir, Finding My Voice. I really loved that too. After I read Remains of the Day, I read several other Ishiguro books, but didn’t find I liked them as much. I look forward to Nadiya Hussain’s next book, but I will have to wait for that!
MB: What is your advice for aspiring authors?
JJ: I can’t offer any business advice of any kind, because I’m extremely terrible at all that stuff, but I can say something about the artistic process, albeit nothing new.
The first piece of advice is to write about what you are interested in –that thing you are secretly, deeply interested in, that you think makes no sense, or that you think no one else would want to read, even if you think other people have already done it better than you could. If that thing speaks to you, GO there. No one else will tell that story the way you will, and if you are truly interested in it, others will be too.
Second, you have to work at it. Writing is hard. It takes time and effort, and the willingness to be disappointed, but you must persevere. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write (and read, A LOT). If you are someone who needs to read, and needs to write, you are on your way, but it will still require discipline at times. Remember, though, discipline is rewarded by flow, and the hard work of honing your craft will pay off in the quality of your work.
Jenny Jaeckel debuted as a novelist with House of Rougeaux in 2018 and since then has published multiple books, including Boy, Falling, the sequel to HoR.
I’ll see you in tomorrow’s Blogtober post.
Until next time, keep reading, and add melodrama to your life. 🙂