Meet the Writer: K.B. Jensen

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women or nonbinary. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome K.B. Jensen (she/her), who is a crime novelist and a publishing consultant, a ski downhill instructor and a former crime reporter. You can find her on social media like Twitter and Facebook and at her website.

Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

KB Jensen: I’ve always known I was a writer. I told my dad I wanted to be a writer in third grade. “You’ll starve,” he said. But I haven’t. Out of college, I worked as a journalist for over a decade, ironically thinking that was a way to make a good living as a writer. While I loved it and it gave me a lot of material to work with, I’ve been happier in the creative writing world. I actually gave up crime reporting to become a stay-at-home mom, because I couldn’t work the long hours writing about murders and interviewing victims’ families and get home on time to pick up my kid at daycare. I wrote my first novel during my baby’s nap time, and published Painting With Fire and A Storm of Stories later. The last six years, I’ve worked as a publishing consultant/book midwife with My Word Publishing. I also coach writing with an online writing retreat for adults, and started a Youth Writing Camp with the My Word team during the pandemic, which is a great way to connect with and support my daughter, who is also a writer. 

I’m excited to be refocusing on my own work with a third book, a short-story collection coming out this July called Love and Other Monsters in the Dark.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? OR Why did you start writing?

KBJ: Before I even knew how to write letters, I was making up symbols to try to remember the song lyrics and stories in my head with my crayons. Later, I had a teacher in third grade, Mrs. Nancy Grein at North Star Elementary in Minneapolis, who was extremely supportive and helped me believe in my writing. She used to send me to the principal’s office to read my stories. I also won grand prize in the school writing contest that year, which came with a nice confidence boost and a guinea pig named Patches. I loved Patches, though he was terrified of everyone after being a classroom pig.

Mrs. Grein gave me her school picture, and wrote on the back, “I look forward to reading your book one day.” Best teacher ever.

GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

KBJ: I’ve read and learned a lot, taken my fair share of writing classes at various universities and independent workshops. Man, did I learn a lot from journalism, just life experience, you know. Also from hanging out with a wide variety of writers from different genres. When I lived in Hyde Park, Chicago, I actually started a writing collective on the South Side with author talks, readings, critiquing, and prompt writing. It was my build-your-own MFA. Now I’m in the Denver area, and I’ve learned a ton from the writer community here. 

I did a lot of editing for other authors, which is also a delicious way to engage with our art. Being a book midwife, I get to have an excuse to stay on top of the industry trends and chat with book friends all day. I also took a flash-fiction writing retreat in Italy that changed my life with authors Nancy Stohlman and Kathy Fish, and I continued to fall in love with tight, short stories. I also learn from my own online writing retreat, which is a blast because I’m always inspired by the people from a variety of genre backgrounds who attend. One thing you’ll notice, if you look at the genres I write, is that I refuse to be pigeon-holed to any one genre. I like a challenge, and I like being inspired by people. 

GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing? 

KBJ: I try something different. I sometimes write bad poetry to try to give myself permission to write badly. Sometimes good things come when you allow a certain level of mediocrity. You never know what an idea will lead to. I had a practice novel I wrote on the El in Chicago, and another from NaNoWriMo that’s in the drawer and will stay there, and that’s okay. You learn something even when it doesn’t work. Especially when it doesn’t work. I like to write character-driven fiction, and when things get too plot-heavy and you can’t understand a character’s motivation, then it’s just not going to work. My poetry is another story. Some of that stuff is in the drawer from fear, but I’m working on it.

GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book, Love and Other Monsters in the Dark?

KBJ: I learned that the idea of a writer having to write every day is BS. There’s a seasonality to it. Sometimes, writing comes and sometimes, it doesn’t, but I need to trust that if I keep at it, the books will eventually take shape. I’m a total pantser. I like to write from the subconscious, like dreaming on paper. I surprised myself when I wrote this book. It’s almost like I have to trick myself into writing a book, to committing to one project. My brain kept trying to connect the stories, which made names difficult. Trying to name different characters in forty-two stories is insanity. Thank goodness for baby name books and find and replace.

GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

KBJ: There’s a lot to think about in Love and Other Monsters in the Dark. How would the zombie apocalypse affect your relationship? Would you set your house on fire just to get your spouse’s attention? Can a writer writing about you be dangerous? Who or what constitutes a monster? Some stories touch on or echo pandemic life. A lot of art ignores it right now, but I don’t shy away. I also love connecting with book clubs and can connect via Zoom, or in person if they are in the Denver area.

31 comments

  1. “How would the zombie apocalypse affect your relationship?”
    Now there is a fun thing to ponder and a fun thing to write about.
    I feel like my husband and myself could do pretty well in a zombie apocalypse, provided we had prepped somewhat first. He tends to panic more whereas I am pretty calm in emergency situations. However, I’ve never encountered zombies before, and I think that would really test your tranquility.
    Anyway, great interview!
    I like her advice to allow yourself to write badly sometimes. Squeeze the poison out as it were. I think that is a good way to keep your creative juices flowing.

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  2. “Sometimes good things come when you allow a certain level of mediocrity.” I love this. Also interesting that she doesn’t feel like she has to write every day. I’ve read a lot of writers do write every day, so it’s nice to see a difference of opinion. Her book sounds fun!

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    • True! There are many folks who talk about how practice is what makes a writer, and so waiting for something isn’t always a great idea. However, when I was in a writing program, for me to sit down and force myself to write felt like an exercise in human endurance. Author Lydia Yuknavitch and I talked about how we both don’t write for a long time and then suddenly sit down and write loads at once. While I do not have a book published, she has several and is famous, so there must be something to it.

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      • It doesn’t really matter how you get there, you’ll get there. I think an ebb and flow is great, but if people like writing every day, that’s totally cool too! It’s about whatever works for you.

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  3. Great interview. You can’t edit nothing, as others have noted, so getting something down, however mediocre, is the key. I’m in awe of people who can edit and write, although I suppose I do that within nonfiction!

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      • I think of the rewrites as part of the editing process (probably because I’m an editor and I thought of that with my books – getting the text down in whatever form is the writing, everything else is editing, though I wouldn’t be involved in my editing work in anyone else’s second draft). But yes, having something to traditionally edit or rewrite is key: write something, anything, then you’ve got something to shape and refine.

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  4. I too liked the bit about writers not “having” to write everyday, though I suspect that for some it IS a necessary discipline. As in all things humans are different and what one person needs is completely irrelevant for another. I also liked the bit about allowing yourself to write bad or mediocre stuff.

    But it was this that most interested me: “Trying to name different characters in forty-two stories is insanity. Thank goodness for baby name books and find and replace.” I love short stories, and often think about characters’ names, but have never thought about the fact that writing short stories really amps things up in terms of naming. Just naming two children was enough!

    Great questions again. But unlike some here, surviving the zombie apocalypse is not something that I would think, Now here’s something that is worth exploring in my own life. Though, I suppose if I saw it as a metaphor for something, like, say, climate catastrophe I might?

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    • Re: your comment about a metaphor for climate change. I do think that zombie stories can function as a metaphor for all sorts of things, whether it be those when we all watched so much TV we were practically zombies, or a pandemic/virus/disease, or immigration, etc. I hadn’t thought about zombies as a metaphor for the climate, but that’s a cool idea. Maybe that’s what The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey was about (zombies as a result of a spore).

      As for short stories, it drives me nuts when the characters’ names are all too similar or start with the same letter. Surely that can’t be a mistake, but what is the purpose of writing names that can be intentionally confusing? I wonder if writers have a spreadsheet with their characters’ names, because if they accidentally re-use one, I would be thinking it was intentional and some sort of cross-over story.

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      • A spreadsheet sounds like a great idea! Definitely a metaphor for any good old disaster, really. If you check out, Love and Other Monsters in the Dark, there is actually one character who appears twice. But that’s intentional. He wasn’t done with me yet.

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  5. One of my daughters (Psyche) wrote stories all through her school days, great long romances mostly, and would read them out to her friends. I still have some somewhere, at the very bottom of my sock drawer probably. I thought she was on her way to being a writer but she just stopped.

    I couldn’t imagine doing mediocre writing to get it out of my system. Practice is for eliminating faults not embedding them. But of course, if it works for you …

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    • I used to write all the time, too, and started to get self-conscious somewhere on the journey, I think, when I started my MFA. It wasn’t just the writing program or my peers, but I didn’t fit in culturally. I’m hoping to get back to fiction writing some day, and feeling okay with letting it be silly or overly romantic, etc.

      I think the mediocre writing is for when you’re stuck, but maybe Jensen will respond. As the years go by, the definition of “mediocre” changes and you have better writing, but it’s still not polished by any means.

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      • Mediocre writing definitely helps when you are stuck. It also helps flush out the gunk. Sometimes there are things you have to process before you can write what you want to write. It’s like opening a faucet.

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    • I quite often set a timer and write for half an hour/an hour without editing or pausing – what comes out is mostly mediocre, but if I let it sit for a day or two I often read it back and find there are a few good ideas and maybe even a couple of great sentences – something that can be heavily edited and might not even make it into the first completed draft, but that got me over a stuck bit. Everyone is different, but if all my writing had to be good then I would never write anything because I would never feel like it was good enough to put down.

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        • An author visited my MFA program, and I remember how after her first book was published that she was so stuck that she sat at her computer every morning at the same time and forced herself to write SOMETHING. In her case, she described her carpet over and over again for ages. While at the time I thought, “What a waste of human existence,” I now see how each day you could challenge yourself to describe the carpet differently, which is an interesting practice in and of itself.

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      • Lou, I have definitely found myself stuck in the past when I thought I had to put good work down. It becomes a loop in which I talk myself out of writing rather easily. This conversation reminds me that I want to write a post about how our identities can get caught up in something we’ve done a lot of in the past and how our identities should be what it was we enjoyed about the activity, not the activity itself.

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    • That sounds like you’ve got some fun memories with your daughter, how cool! Oh it doesn’t embed a fault at all. It means you are pushing yourself to play faster and harder. It’s practice. When I help other authors with their titles, I have a saying, one bad idea can lead to an awesome idea. You don’t know where the train of thought will lead. It allows greater creativity if you open yourself up to not playing perfect all the time. I’m actually a terrible perfectionist so it’s freeing during creation. And it’s good to break rules, as long as it’s a conscious decision. Now, writing and publishing are different things. I publish a tiny fraction of what I write.

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  6. I’m impressed by the way she seems to have built or connected with a community of other writers in varying places. That build-your-own MFA comment resonates with me because I’ll likely never return to university but it’s a good reminder that education can be found in a lot of places.

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      • That’s something I really miss about being in school. I know there are such groups in my area but I’ve never reached out to them. Partly due to lacking the time, partly due to my own nervousness, I guess.

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        • I hope you both find the perfect writing group for your goals! They totally exist. Consider starting one or trying one out to match up. One of my favorite writing groups of all time, the person who started it actually interviewed people for the group, not screening primarily for talent, but screening mainly personality fit and big egos. It was one of the best groups I’ve ever been in. When meeting a new group, I recommend trying them out to make sure you jibe and if they don’t, don’t return and try to force it. Some groups I’ve been in have been mind-blowingly helpful and others have been like firing squads and counterproductive. It also doesn’t have to all center around critiques. Sometimes, it can be about sitting down and getting the writing done or finding inspiration, or sharing writing. If the group is making you overly nervous once you go, then there’s something wrong with the group.

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          • I’ve heard about people having groups where they just go and write together. It almost reminds me of the accountability buddy system some exercisers have. The last time I went to a writing group, the critique I received — from the group leader, no less — for my farcical short story that parodied a Harlequin Romance was, “I just can’t imagine anyone publishing this.” When I did not return, her feelings were hurt and she wanted to know why I abandoned them. I said my goals did not line up with her goals, and she said she’d never thought that anyone would write without the desire to be published and make money. Like, no one would ever just write because they want to write. Apparently, she and her husband had co-authored loads of romance novels under a pseudonym and make money off it.

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            • Eek, classic example of a group that is not a match. Personally, I’d love a good parody of a Harlequin romance, and I believe you could make money on that if you wanted to. There are lots of writers out there who do it for love, not money, so you aren’t alone. Sounds like these two individuals were not your target readers and didn’t understand your genre at all. In fact, you may have hit a nerve with their own insecurities. I once went to a critique group where the (male) leader of the group told me women can’t write men. I didn’t waste my time going back to that group, but I didn’t give up on groups all together or stop writing men. Please don’t ever let people who don’t get what you are trying to do determine your journey. Don’t give them the power.

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