Origin of “Jovai”

As a child, I loved singing. I sang even before I could speak. I believed in God from my earliest memories, and I lifted my voice as a gift of thanks to Him.

Shortly after I learned to walk, I developed a love of dance. Music seeped into my body. I welcomed it and transformed it into movement, filling the space around me with my joy. I loved the feeling of flying, falling, and twirling. It felt like becoming nothing and everything all at once, dramatically alive.

When I learned to read, whole, new worlds opened to me. The stories gripped my imagination, excited my curiosity, and compelled me to follow where they led. I became insatiable in my reading, learning the torture of cruel parents who insisted I turn off my lights and go to sleep when all I wanted to do was to read more. Of course, the delight of reading was too much to contain in my little self. I had to share it with others or burst. I began reading aloud to any who would listen – with flying hands and a voice that trembled, whispered, laughed, or soared with all the characters’ feelings. That led to my desire to become an actress.

The only thing I didn’t want to be was a writer. The idea of being trapped, all alone, somewhere silent, facing a blank page, seemed like a version of hell for me.

Then, one day, I ran out of good books to read. I had read everything in my home and school, everything in the local libraries, everything I could borrow from friends. I had read, repeatedly, the great stories and the good stories and even the mediocre stories. I had also read some stories that were so awful I wanted to shout at the pages to somehow make them improve. I was desperate for a new, good story, and it seemed to me that the only way I could get one was to write it myself. Afraid of the isolation writing seemed to require, I resisted this urge until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

When I finally succumbed, I was heartbroken to discover that I wasn’t very good at fiction writing. By that time, grown up, I knew I could easily write books (working in an active, office environment) and was making money as a technical writer. I excelled as a personal assistant in my writing of business correspondences, proposals, reports, etc., but my fiction was not good enough to please me. When I tried to read again the stories I had written, I ended up trashing them. Over and over, story after story, my frustration mounted. At last, I prayed to God to please give me a good story idea and to help me write it well. I suddenly saw in my mind a little girl sitting in a tree, singing. There was an old man watching her, fearsome and frowning. I wondered why he was scowling so. The only way to find out was to write the scene.

Word by word, the story unfolded before me. I typed as quickly as I could to try to keep up, eager to know what was going to happen next. By this time, I had graduated from university and was supporting my mother, who was going through a tough period in her life. I was working a full time day job, coming home to get dinner cooking and to work out, then racing to my bedroom to write. I’d force myself to take a break in order to serve my mother the dinner I’d cooked. Then I’d try to focus on her as she told me of her day or tried to speak of current events. My responses were peppered with insights gleaned from my characters that seemed to relate to things she was saying, until she’d give me a weird look.

“Those people aren’t real, you know,” she’d say.

“Of course not,” I answered with a forced smile, trying not to appear crazy. (I don’t think she was convinced.)

They felt real, however. They did things I had never done. They presented me with points of views and insights I had never considered. They loved and clashed with each other in ways I had never experienced. The typical advice to writers was to write what you know. I was doing the opposite, and I found it fascinating. Sometimes I would pause to look up some topic of which I had written, to see if I had gotten it right. Oddly, it seemed I always had.

I’d sit across from my mother at dinner times, trying to be as encouraging and loving as she needed, while she was rebuilding herself during that challenging period of her life, but I was struggling to hide how much I wanted to return to my world filled with all the people I was enjoying getting to know. I had been so afraid to be isolated and alone with only the blank page in front of me. The truth of it, however, was that I was never in better company, more deeply engaged and excited, as when I was exploring this strange world with the people I had come to love. The pages filled with words as quickly as I could write or type them – so fast that I barely noticed each blank page since it filled so quickly.

This story was good. After writing it, I kept editing – rereading over and over and over again, changing a word here or there, trying to make it perfect. I reread it at least 100 times and probably closer to double or triple that, long after I could not find a single word to change. Every time I’d pick it up, thinking I would just consider a little tweak in one area or another, I would get caught again and end up reading to the end, unable to stop. At last I realized that, if it was good enough to keep catching me like that, it would probably catch others as well.

I sent it to some publishers, got an offer to publish, engaged a literary agent to help me negotiate the contract, and ended up turning down the publishing deal on his advice. He was sure we could do better. I, however, had returned to the real world, taking a break from writing. I was dating again, soon engaged, then, too quickly, married and supporting my husband while he went to law school. I soon got pregnant. My agent asked me to write a different kind of book while he was marketing my first, but once the baby was born, there was no more time for writing. I shelved all my writing projects to make sure I didn’t miss a moment of my new child’s life.

It was over 20 years before I could return to writing, but every year I would pull “Jovai” off my shelves and reread it. Every year it would speak to me in a new way. I discovered new insights I had missed before. Sometimes it seemed eerily prophetic, reflecting conditions in my current life that I had had no way to anticipate back when I had written it. Through my good times and my bad times there was always something in that story that made me feel as if God were right there, beside me, loving me and teaching me something that I needed in that moment. The older I got, the more experienced in this world, the wiser that book seemed to be – far wiser than I have ever been or likely ever will be.

The most difficult part of publishing this story was dividing it into different books. It is an epic, written as one, very long story. To put it all into one tome would make it unwieldly to handle, but as a reader there was never a good place to stop. My editor and I finally settled on a good place to break for the first book, since she insisted on making it a “stand-alone” but, for me, even at that point, even having read it so many times before, I could not have stopped reading. Apparently, many of my reviewers agreed. The only stopping point I could endure was the end of this series. Even so, I have another series planned in the same world but focusing on different characters, a generation later. I use the word “planned” loosely, since I really have no idea what will happen in this new story. My reward for getting “Jovai” and several other pieces I am working on finished, published, and available to the world is that I will finally indulge my desire to write the second series after “The Shaman’s Apprentice” which I’m tentatively calling “Firebird.” So far, I only know the first scene, but that compels me to work and finish everything as quickly as I can so that I can write the rest. I cannot wait to find out what happens next!