Posted on 08/17/2014 at 12:00 AM by Jeffrey Bruner
Carolyn Jourdan was a staffer for the United States Senate when a call from home in rural Tennessee changed her life and led to her career as a nonfiction author. Read about how she approaches her nonfiction books and why she decided to give fiction a try.
JEFFREY: Your first book, "Heart in the Right Place," a Wall Street Journal bestselling memoir about leaving Capitol Hill and returning home to rural Tennessee was on many lists of best books of the year. What made you decide make the leap from the law and politics to writing?
CAROLYN: I was asked to leave my job as a high-tech environmental lawyer at the U.S. Senate and come home to help out during a family emergency. (Carolyn’s mother had a heart attack and she ran the office for Carolyn’s father, a country doctor. – Jeffrey.) It was supposed to be for a long weekend, but it turned into four years, which utterly destroyed my fast lane career. I was overqualified for jobs in the Smoky Mountains, so I ended up writing a book because I figured the only thing of value I had to sell was a comedy about my spectacular career disaster.
JEFFREY: I imagine such a change really caused you to re-examine yourself.
CAROLYN: Totally. For the better. It caused me to recalibrate my thinking about public service. Being an unpaid receptionist in my father's little medical office and living in the basement of my parents' house at age 45 was much more meaningful and satisfying than jetting around the world and taking joyrides on nuclear submarines. Surprising, but true.
JEFFREY: Then came "Medicine Men" and "Bear in the Back Seat I and II," which were very popular and continue to sell well to this day. Where did the ideas for these books come from?
CAROLYN: I spent two years interviewing elderly family doctors in Appalachia about the most wacky or touching moments in their careers as physicians in the mountains and the result was "Medicine Men," a book that went to #1 on all of Amazon.
After that I spent the next couple of years writing a two-part memoir for a wildlife ranger who works near where I live. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular family vacation destination in the US. Over nine million people a year come there to view wildlife. Many of these people are from the city, so hilarious and terrifying situations occur nearly every day when they naively approach the animals.
The ranger is the bravest, funniest, and most amazing person. His stories of rescuing a tribe of seventy wild skunks and having wild bears wake up unexpectedly in the back of his car, in his office, and on a helicopter are priceless. The bear memoir was also a Wall Street Journal best selling book.
JEFFREY: What made you decide to give writing fiction a try?
CAROLYN: I didn’t do it on purpose. It happened because I’d done four nonfiction books in a row while, on the side, I was trying to help and encourage a young writer finish her first book, which was a mystery.
To understand the structure of a mystery better, so could help her, I watched every single episode of all the CSI and NCIS type shows in a monstrous binge. It took months. I was so put off by the absurd gratuitous violence in those shows that I decided to take a whack at it myself, albeit a gentle G-rated version set in the Smokies. The young writer never finished her book, but I did. Hollywood is looking at it now [“Out on a Limb”]. Totally bizarre.
JEFFREY: How is writing fiction different than writing non-fiction in terms of the research, outlining, fact checking?
CAROLYN: Totally different. I write nonfiction based on interviews with real people so I have to weave an appealing narrative from those. There is no leeway. Fiction is ALL leeway. : )
JEFFREY: Now that you’ve done both fiction and nonfiction, do you prefer one over the other?
CAROLYN: I guess I like nonfiction best — comic narrative nonfiction like I’m known for — but it’s extremely refreshing to do fiction in between, so I think I will continue to do both. I just did a couple of paranormal cozy adventures starring a middle-aged lady who has never married (like me) and that was really fun. It’s an outlet for my Super Spinster fantasies. LOL.
JEFFREY: What’s your next project?
CAROLYN: I’m a geek and am in love with radiographs, biomedical images of all sorts. I’ve been working on a really touching book about that for thirteen years so far. I started it three and a half hours before the first plane hit a building on 911. I was apparently having a premonition.
Here’s the opening of what I wrote and saved at 5:30 in the morning: “I’d seen hundreds of x-rays before, thousands, but never anything like this. Never one after another of people who were in such dire condition they couldn’t even hold their heads up out of the frame. I could see their faces in the chest x-rays. Head slumped forward, chin resting on the chest.
It was unbearably moving. I stared at the ghostly grey lips that were never smiling, but were sometimes slack as if the person were unconscious. Other images were of patients who were so sick the technicians couldn’t remove the EKG leads, so Will would have to read the x-ray through a pattern of swirling wires and tubes and even necklaces.”
Categories: Author Interview