Archive for November 2011

An Interview with U.P. Author and Native Jenifer Brady

November 24, 2011

I’ve invited my good friend and fellow U.P. author Jenifer Brady to be my guest on my blog and talk about her wonderful books about a summer camp in Upper Michigan. And if you enjoy what she has to say, come visit her and me at the Superior Dome for the TV6 Christmas Craft Show on Friday, Dec 2 – Sunday Dec 4. Hope to see you there!

Jenifer Brady

U.P. Author Jenifer Brady - visit her at the TV6 Christmas Craft Show in Marquette Dec 2nd - 4th at the Superior Dome

Jenifer hails from Iron Mountain, but her heart is at camp—in fact, she calls herself a Camp Addict. She and her husband, also a camp addict, love camp so much that they got married there. Naturally as an author, Jenifer decided to write about camp. She is the author of the Abby’s Camp Days series, which currently consists of four titles, as well as two additional related books Super Counselors and Buddy Check. The fifth Abby book will be out in the spring of 2012.

Tyler: Hi, Jenifer. Of course, I’ve read all your books and I’m a big fan, but I never have asked you what made you first decide to write books about camp?

Jenifer: When I was in high school and college, whenever I’d miss camp, I’d get on this kick where I really wanted to read books about camp. I’d go to the library and used bookstores, but this was before the days where you could look online and find hundreds of books about any subject imaginable. I managed to find a few fictional books set at summer camp, but they pretty much all followed one of two predictable formats: 1) a kid has to go to camp but doesn’t want to (either because they are shy or they feel dumped there by their parents or the friend they were supposed to go with suddenly backs out) and they hate camp for the first ¾ of the book until they find out that camp is fun and then they can’t believe they ever didn’t want to go. Or 2) several characters from an already-established series decide that all 6 or 7 of them want to go to camp. There, they do whatever it is they would be doing in any of the other books of the series, except now they’re at camp instead of school or the mall.

While I enjoyed these books and their depictions of camp life, none of them came close to capturing camp as I had experienced it. Camp, to me, was the place you went every year (usually by yourself or with one friend from home, not 7 of your “real life” friends). You reunited with your best friends and favorite counselors every year and caught up on their lives. The story I was looking for was a story about camp people, friends who live miles and miles apart during the school year but for a week or two weeks or (for the really lucky ones) the whole summer, got to be together at their favorite place on Earth. These people already had a relationship from past summers. I couldn’t find books like that, so I decided to write them, both to help my own “camp withdrawal” and to help others in the same boat.

Tyler: That makes sense to me, Jenifer. That’s the same thing for me—I couldn’t find books set in the U.P. except children’s books so I decided to write them. However, are your books children’s books, or what age group are your books written for?

Buddy Check by Jenifer Brady

Buddy Check

Jenifer: My first two books, Buddy Check and Super Counselors, are young adult fiction. They are told from the perspective of counselors, and the main characters are in high school and college. The Abby’s Camp Days series is told through the viewpoint of a camper. Each book is one summer of her life. She starts out age nine and in elementary camp and gets a year older each book. Originally, I thought that middle-grade readers would like the series and that I wouldn’t get older readers until the characters themselves aged to junior high and high schoolers. But I’ve actually found that a lot of my most loyal readers are already teenagers or adults who used to go to camp themselves (or still do). This has been surprising, but very welcome and exciting as well.

Tyler: What about camp do you think is so appealing as a subject for fiction?

Jenifer: I think, in part, camp appeals as a fictional subject for the same reasons camp appeals in real life. It’s a place where kids can be independent. There are no parents at camp, so you’re on your own and have to solve your own problems, but it’s a totally safe place to practice independence because there are counselors and deans guiding your day who are there in case you get in over your head. I’ve always heard that when you write for kids, you have to get the parents out of the way somehow so that your child protagonists can deal with life on their own. Kids don’t want to read about a parent or teacher swooping in and fixing everything for the child characters. Summer camp settings automatically set your story up that way without having to make your characters orphans or contriving ways for mom and dad to be absent. It’s somehow easier to accept help, when needed, from a teenage counselor rather than a parent. Counselors are like friends and authority figures all wrapped into one cool role model. I still try to have the kids work out their issues on their own, though, and part of the growth of these campers is that while they often rely on the counselors in the first few volumes, as they get older, readers will see them starting to become more independent and relying more on themselves and the other campers their age to sort things out.

Camp Expert by Jenifer Brady

Camp Expert, first in the Abby's Camp Days series

That being said, I find that at camp (in books and in real life) you can delve deeper into your own family relationships and issues by talking with each other and your counselors. At home, there’s something limiting about complaining about your parents (since they’re right there in the next room) or trash talking your sister to a friend (since the friend will probably see your sister or people who know her within 24 hours). But at camp, your family is five miles or two hours or another state away. You can be brutally honest about what you’re going through with friends who have nothing to do with your home life, and you can work through tough issues without fear of being overheard by someone involved. Sometimes you can discover things about yourself and your family when you’re miles away from them.

Tyler: That makes a lot of sense to me, Jenifer, regarding no parents in the books—it’s like why Charlie Brown works, or how in fairy tales the characters can get married without parents to interfere. But now you’ve made me curious to ask how much of your books are fiction and how much is based on your own real-life experiences at camp?

Jenifer: My books are fiction, but I think every author’s work is influenced by their real life. This is the example I always use when people wonder about this: In real life, the summer I graduated from high school, I was at camp talking to assistant cook Josh (who was a staff member that I had just met) while wearing my Iron Mountain Class of 1997 graduation shirt. “Hey,” he said, “do you know So-and-so?” I replied that, yes, So-and-so had been a classmate of mine. He went on to tell me that he played sports for another U.P. school and that the year he placed first in the highest level of achievement for this sport, he was pitted against my classmate in one of the final rounds. I had known that this boy from my school had lost the competition, but I had no idea to whom or what had happened. Josh and I thought that it was pretty funny that our paths had crossed with the same person even though we were from different ends of the UP, but that was the end of the discovery.

Now in real life, I had (and to this day have) no problem with this classmate of mine. My feelings about him are very neutral. We didn’t pal around in high school, since we had different circles of friends and really nothing in common. But he also wasn’t mean to me at all and I never did anything, to my knowledge, that would hurt him. So I have no ill-will towards this person in real life. When I was writing Buddy Check, I remembered this situation, and I thought, well, what would make this exciting and book-worthy? So I came up with the idea that one character would have a sports rivalry history with another character’s school nemesis. I changed the sport and created this whole elaborate backstory that the classmate was this jerk who dated the main character’s friend just because he needed help to pass his finals and then dumped her to date the pretty cheerleader. Then the main character met the athlete who bested him at camp and got his autograph for her friend and the friend brought it to school. None of that happened in real life. It was simply, “Hey do you know that guy?” “Yeah, I graduated with him.” “Oh, I played sports against him.” No drama, no further jokes or conversations. An inconsequential, kind of funny coincidence.

But that didn’t make for good fiction. In fiction, everything has to be connected and woven through the story. So that’s what I often do. I get an idea from real life and try to figure out what elements of it, when changed around, would make a good story. Some of my plots are completely dreamed up (or things I wished had happened—it’s fun to be able to control your own world, even if it is fiction), many things are like the Josh story—a skeleton of real events jazzed up, some things are combined and exaggerated, and a few, rare things are pretty close to real life.

Tyler: That’s a lot like my experiences too—I might get an idea, but then I build and elaborate on it until sometimes the real part is almost erased or unnoticeable. Jenifer, your camp is a Christian camp in the books, so do you consider your books to be Christian fiction, and do you think non-Christians would enjoy your books too?

Favorite Camper by Jenifer Brady

Favorite Camper, second in the Abby's Camp Days series

Jenifer: I do consider my books to be Christian fiction. They are set at Christian camp and a lot of what the kids deal with has to do with faith and discovering what a relationship with Jesus is and how rich one’s life can be with that relationship. There are Bible studies and devotions with the counselors in the cabins and introspection by characters of all ages as to their faith and the way they live their lives. At the same time, I try not to be preachy. Kids don’t want to be preached at. Nobody does, really. And I write real, round characters, not we’re-all-perfect-because-we-go-to-church-and-never-do-anything-wrong kids and teens that sometimes come through in some Christian fiction (I in no way mean to make that a generalization because I’ve read a LOT of great Christian fiction with fantastic characters, but sometimes I shake my head at especially the teen characters in some Christian fiction—if there are real, perfect kids like that out there who only make good decisions and constantly do the right thing, then that’s fantastic, but I don’t know many.)

When I first started writing about Camp Spirit, I didn’t think non-Christians would really be interested. But I’ve found that the camp connection is what draws people to my books rather than the religious aspect. Writing these books is a wonderful way for me to share my faith with others who might not be receptive to me just coming up to them and starting in on what I believe out of the blue.

I have a young person in my life, a family member, whom I love and care about very much. She’s not a Christian and has no interest in Jesus. She lives nowhere near me, so our opportunities to talk are limited basically to online chats. But she loves camp. She’s been a camper, CIT (counselor in training), and this summer a full-pledged, paid staff counselor. Her camp isn’t affiliated with any religious group, but we both love to talk about our camps, so I’ve found that we basically do the same activities at both camps. She’s a fan of my books, and we’ve been able to have honest, respectful conversations about my faith and her disinterest in Christianity that have come from discussing the fictional camp in my books and the real camps we both love. Whenever I’m tempted to give up with this writing endeavor (as I’m sure you know, Tyler, it can be lonely, difficult, and unrewarding at times) I think about this young woman and how my writing about this subject has provided me with opportunities to share my faith with her both through the books and through our discussions about them. And I know I have to keep going for her and for any other readers out there who are able to connect with people they love through the subject.

Tyler: Jenifer, I think one of your characters, Julie, really embodies that realism in terms of the Christianity in the books. She’s not a goody-goody but tries to understand and be a Christian, though real-life gets in the way. For example, I remember the scene in Super Counselors where she tries to remember to read the Bible every day, but then she sees a cute guy at the gym and can’t stop thinking about him and forgets to read her Bible that day. Can you think of a few other examples in the books like that where you tried to balance out Christianity and realism? I think the Abby books have some great examples along those lines.

Jenifer: The premise of my fifth Abby’s Camp Days book (tentatively titled New Staff and scheduled for release this spring) is that the awesome camp staff members (manager, lifeguards, cooks, maintenance guys, etc.) whom Abby loves and has known since she was really little have been replaced by a brand new staff that leaves much to be desired. The lifeguard is scary, the cooks only serve food that is gross or burned, and the new manager has come up with a bunch of new rules that the kids hate. After having many of their camp freedoms taken away and being crabbed at all week by these new, annoying staff members, things escalate to the campers getting canteen taken away and sent to their cabins early. Then, the manager arrives at Abby’s cabin to yell at the girls’ counselor because she wrote a personal note of thanks on the maintenance guy’s request sheet instead of using it for its intended purpose: to make formal requests. The counselors, Kate and Allie, try to calm the girls down, but they are all riled up from a week of what they’ve perceived as injustice.

“Hey, I’ve got it.” Rachel wasn’t giving up that quickly. “We should all start writing random things on the maintenance board, like stuff we can’t stand about them. Like all the stuff from my first petition.”

“Ooh, that’d be funny,” Maddy said.

Allie shook her head. “No.”

“Don’t do that,” Kate said, totally siding with Allie. “We can’t be mean just because they’re mean to us. The Bible says to turn the other cheek.”

Allie and Kate sent us back to our bunks, and we spent an extra-long devotion time looking up verses that said things like the whole turn the other cheek thing and “Treat others as you want them to treat you.” Rachel found a verse in Proverbs that said, “But if you are stupid, you will be beaten with a stick,” which got her really excited until Kate said that it was a rule from over two thousand years ago and didn’t apply to the twenty-first century and probably had a double meaning that we didn’t know and that she wasn’t allowed to beat anybody with a stick at camp that week.

“But there are so many good sticks at camp,” Rach protested, “and so many stupid people this summer. Don’t you have to do what the Bible says, anyway?”

“Here’s something then,” Allie said. She had been leaning against her dresser, flipping through her Bible. Now she stood up straight and cleared her throat. “Matthew 5:44. ‘I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven.’”

“That’s good,” Lindsay said. “I’m going to do that. Whenever I get really mad at someone, I’ll pray for them instead of thinking about what makes me mad.”

“Good idea, Lindsay,” Kate said. “I think we should all try that.”

“Won’t we be praying every second of the day for these people?” Maddy asked.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Allie said.

“I’d still rather beat them with sticks,” Rachel mumbled, low enough so Allie and Kate wouldn’t hear.

I had to try really hard not to laugh at the mental picture I got of Aaron trying to make us sing Rise and Shine again and Rachel going after him with a stick.

The counselors have had a teaching time, and obviously some of the girls are listening and taking to heart the Bible reading. But they’ve just endured a week of being annoyed and hurt by these people, and some of them aren’t ready to forgive. I think that’s pretty realistic. Everybody’s heart is different. Each of the four main camper characters has a different personality in my series, and they naturally react to situations differently. They aren’t always going to do the right thing every time, just as humans, including Christians, don’t do the right thing all the time.

Tyler: That’s a perfect passage for an example, Jenifer. Could you envision how your books would be different without the Christian themes in them?

Cabin Secrets by Jenifer Brady

Cabin Secrets, book three in the Abby's Camp Days series

Jenifer: They would be very different. The characters might be similar, but even if they had the same names and same personality and physical traits, they would be different people. Being a Christian (or not being a Christian) affects your motivations, your dreams, your actions. There’s a lot of hazing involved in many camp plots on TV and in books, and that just would not fly at Christian camp. The counselors would be all over you if you and your buddies tormented the weird kid or played a nasty trick on somebody. There would also probably be more of an emphasis on activities (more things like the traditional color wars or sports tournaments or horseback riding and archery) instead of an emphasis on relationships and character growth if my books didn’t have Christian themes.

The plots would probably be similar but the little details would be very different. In so many the camp-themed books and movies, when campers or counselors sneak out, they end up drinking alcohol, smoking, having sex with their camp romances. My characters sneak out at night, of course (how can you not—it’s camp!!!) but they do things like take a canoe out after hours and (ooooh) kiss their camp romances. I’m not saying that Christian camp counselors would never do those other things, but it would be less common and not as accepted. Since camp romance is such a big part of the whole camp culture, I love a good CR in my books or in a book about camp that I’m reading. One difference I’ve noticed in my books and non-Christian camp books is that the camp romances in my books often develop slowly from already-formed relationships while a lot of camp romances in secular media are “Ooh, a hot guy counselor is interested in me—let’s make out (or sometimes more) every other chapter. Then we’ll figure out what, if anything, we have in common or where this is going.”

I’ve always thought that my books would sell more if they had “more exciting,” worldly things like this in them, but I just don’t want to write that. Teenagers get enough of that from TV, and they need to hear from somebody what God hopes for their lives and that you can have a blast, whether it’s on a date or hanging out with a big group of friends, without drugs, alcohol, or sex. It can be just as exciting and romantic to build up to that first kiss in a camp romance.

Tyler: I know in the past when I’ve talked to you, you’ve talked about the need to balance your books between being too worldly and too pure or innocent (those might not be the exact words you would use but I think you know what I mean). How do you manage to carry off that balance, and do your readers ever think you go too far one way or the other?

Jenifer: I don’t try consciously to write one way or the other early in the process. I just write the story I want to write and then on subsequent edits, I try to look at things from several perspectives and sometimes I end up changing things if I think I’ve gone too extreme one way or another. Most of the people who have talked to me about it say that they think the balance is good and that the elements of faith are strong but the characters are realistic.

I did have a friend (who read the first three Abby volumes and said she enjoyed them herself) say that she knew some conservative parents who wouldn’t agree with them because the main character and her best friend have crushes on the teenage guy counselors. While I don’t see any problem with a harmless little kid crush (I’ve counseled elementary camp tons of times before, and it does happen quite a bit—I think it’s great for girls to admire and set their standards of their future boyfriends on real, stand-up, Christian guys they know rather than popular actors or singers they only know on the surface and who will inevitably be involved at some point in some sort of media scandal.) I’m not offended that people might have that opinion, though. If anything, I think it’s good to know what your kids are reading, and if it’s something you don’t agree with, that’s fine. I also know that there are people on the other side of the spectrum who will roll their eyes and think it’s totally lame that many of my college aged (and older) characters (male characters as well as female) are firm in their decision to retain their purity until marriage.

You can’t please everybody, so you just have to know your audience and write for them, and there’s going to be some sort of controversy, however small, about whatever you write, whether it’s college students not believing people would wait for marriage or parents who are wary about elementary kid crushes.

I think a lot of people have this notion that if a book is labeled as “Christian fiction,” that it’s suitable for everyone of every age and interest. That’s not always the case. In the beginning, I only had young adult books, and when I’d speak about being a writer to grade school students, some kids would come up to me afterwards, hand me money, and try to buy copies. I had to tell them that the books were really for teenagers and that they needed to check with their parents first because some of the storylines centered around the choices teenagers make in our flawed world.

Teenagers are going to be tempted by things, and some Christian teens are going to ponder these choices rather than sticking to their guns right away. They might even make the wrong choice sometimes and then have to live with the consequences of that choice in light of their faith or redeem themselves by making the right choice the next time. Being a Christian doesn’t put you in a bubble with only other Christians. Man, life would be easy if that were true! (That’s actually kind of what camp is like, which is why it’s so hard to take all the things you learn in that safe little bubble out into your real life.) In that real life, you’re still exposed to the influence of the world, no matter what promises you made to God and yourself at camp. Those things are still out there, affecting your view of yourself and the decisions you make. Sometimes you’re going to fail. Sometimes in big ways. And I think it’s okay if fictional characters do, too.

Tyler: Besides Christianity, what would you say is the predominant theme to your books?

Jenifer: Friendship and being there for someone unconditionally. Camp friendships are very different from real life friendships. Also, that everybody, no matter what you look like or what your interests are or what you’re good at (or terrible at), can be accepted somewhere, flaws and all. How if you and a friend have one really important thing in common (in my books, it’s camp, but I suppose it could be anything that means the world to you both) that’s enough of a bond to supersede any minor (or major) differences in your lifestyle or personalities.

Tyler: How important is humor to your books?

Jenifer: I think humor is very important. Most of the books I love are funny or at least have a major humorous component to the narrator’s voice. I like to be entertained, and I don’t think I’m unique in that respect. The two biggest compliments a reader can give me are to say that a scene either made them cry a little or caused them to laugh. I have a friend named Mevia who is great at catching typos and storyline discrepancies. She is usually one of the first people who reads my books when I’m at the very end of polishing them. I gave her a sneak peek of the FriendLink portion of my website (a fake social media network with my characters’ profiles). Well, she was on vacation reading it in a hotel computer lab, and she said she kept cracking up and the other guests would give her funny looks. When I hear things like this, it helps me so much fight through the tough writing times. I want to entertain people, and I think that having a funny voice is a big part of this, even if you’re dealing with serious plots.

Tyler: You also have serious topics, such as people having serious illnesses or being killed in car accidents, or being children of divorce. How do you balance out the serious and the funny, and why do you include both?

Jenifer: This was actually never a conscious choice. I didn’t sit down to write an outline of a book and think, “What kind of disasters can hammer my characters today? Oh, death by car accident!” It came about because my real life camp experience included campers telling me angrily about how much it sucks to hear mom and dad scream at each other or campers crying because they’ve lost a grandparent or a friend to cancer. One of my favorite campers in real life lost her father to a degenerative disease when she was a senior in high school. He was diagnosed when she was in junior high and I was 19, and he died when I was 23. It was horrible to watch his health decline and to see how heartbroken this camper I cared about was.

The first time I counseled, I was 16, and my co-counselor, who would go on to become a good friend, had just lost his father six months prior to the week of camp to a sudden heart attack. A big part of my first week of camp was working through that. Until that week, I was invincible in my mind, and so was my family. Sure, I had thought about the fact that someday, my parents would pass away, but in my mind, I had gray hair and wrinkles as I buried them. All of a sudden, I was confronted with mortality…the knowledge that I might not be old before someone I loved died and I remember feeling so helpless both for myself and my friend.

I think these, and the many other heartaches shared with me by co-counselors and campers, were so much a part of my camp experience that when I went to write fiction about camp, of course there were serious, horrible issues to deal with, not just corny jokes on candy wrappers at canteen and funny pranks. Like I said before, camp is a safe place where you can be yourself and work out your issues. And it’s funny and a little bit bizarre because one minute you’re pouring your heart out to your counselor about a parent’s terminal illness and the next you’re laughing like crazy at a goofy skit with all the other campers about a centipede peeing on someone. That’s camp, a strange mix of serious and funny, and I think that’s why it comes through in my books.

Tyler: Abby is the main character in the majority of books. How did you settle on her for your narrator, and what is the advantage of telling the story from her perspective?

Jenifer: Well, I got the idea to do the Abby’s Camp Days series while talking to my friend Phil. He’s a friend from camp, and he had just read Buddy Check. We were talking about my books and his projects (he’s a musician), and somehow the subject got onto the Harry Potter series. “Hey,” Phil said, “you should write a book like Harry Potter but at camp, where you have the same main character, but every year is year at camp, like how the Potter ones are one book for each year of Hogwarts.” I loved the idea!

I knew I wanted to keep this series in the Camp Spirit world I had created in my first two young adult books. So naturally, the first book in a series about a camper would be about a kid who was going to camp for the first time, didn’t know anybody, was pretty unsure about it and unfamiliar with the camp culture, and eventually realized that camp was awesome. But wait a minute…that was the story I was so sick of reading, the story that wasn’t camp as I knew it, the reason I started writing about camp in the first place. I knew I needed a twist. I needed a way not to deviate from my rule of writing about camp people who already looked forward to camp and the rekindling of relationships with their camp friends. But how could I possibly write that when Volume 1 of Abby was about a kid going to her first week of elementary camp?

Abby Riley was the answer to that dilemma. She was a 9-year-old girl who was ready to go off to her first week of elementary camp on her own (well, with one friend from school) but she was in a unique position because while elementary camp was new to her, Camp Spirit wasn’t. Her parents were the deans of the junior high week, so she already knew all the staff members, campers, and counselors. She already knew where the bathrooms were, what the cabins were named, and what activities they’d do. Or so she thought . . . turns out, most of the volunteer counselors at elementary camp are people she doesn’t know and the whole format of elementary camp is different from junior high. And, most annoying to Abby, she’s just one of eighty or so campers at elementary camp, expected to follow all the silly, babyish rules instead of a dean’s guest, privy to special privileges. So I was able to tell a story about a kid who isn’t sure about camp but who already had a relationship with the few counselors and staff members whom she knew from past summers. She already had expectations and knowledge about camp, and I think that I was able to put a twist on the popular first-time-camper storyline.

Tyler: When you finish writing the Abby series, do you have plans to write more books, and will they be about camp or other topics?

Lost Swimmer Drill by Jenifer Brady

Lost Swimmer Drill, fourth in the Abby's Camp Days series

Jenifer: Abby was supposed to be a 10-book series, starting with elementary camp and ending with her graduation from high school camp. But I’ve gotten ideas for one or two books past that, when Abby and her friends are in college. More recently, a whole new cast of characters have come to me—the kids of the campers and counselors I’m currently writing about. I have one book about these second generation campers that I really want to write, maybe two. I thought it would be fun to see how they all end up 20 years from now. The focus would be on the kids, but their parents and honorary aunts and uncles would be in there, too, so you could see what kind of parents these people end up and what they do for a living, whether or not what their lives have become mesh with the dreams they have as teenagers. And, of course, if any of those camp romances end up lasting.

After that, I think it’s time for Camp Spirit to take a break. I’ve written them for the last decade and it will be another decade before I’m done with the next 5 Abbys and possibly the college and next generation books. I think it’ll be time to write about the “real world” for a while then. I have the seeds of ideas for several non-camp books, but I haven’t allowed myself to think too much about them because I have so much to do with my current projects.

Tyler: What is your absolutely favorite thing about camp?

Jenifer: The whole safe environment. I feel free to be myself at camp. The people are accepting. That’s why I keep going to camp as a counselor and dean. I was given, by the people running camp when I was a kid and teenager, that safe environment. I made friends and was accepted at camp when people my age in the real world didn’t want anything to do with me. Everybody should have the opportunity to have that, so I try my best every year to counsel a cabin that promotes acceptance for every single girl, a little family that values every camper.

Tyler: What do you hope readers will feel or think after reading your books?

Jenifer: I hope that fellow “camp addicts” will be able to say, “That is so camp!” I want them to be able to have camp for a few hours, even if it’s snowy and January. And I want non-camp people to understand camp and why it means so much to camp addicts. It’s hard to understand what appeals about camp when you’re not into it yourself, why the same stupid jokes cause camp friends to bust up laughing over and over, why camp people live the 51 weeks of the year counting down to the 1 week they get to go to camp. I think it’s sometimes incomprehensible and even a little hurtful to family members and friends who don’t also love camp. I want them to be able to read my books and understand the camp addicts in their lives, to know that it’s not that they value their non-camp friends or the time spent with them any less than their camp friends; it’s just that camp is a special place unlike any other.

Tyler: Jenifer, you have an amazing web site Will you tell my readers a little about the many fun things there, including FriendLink?

Jenifer: Well, thank you! When I finish a book that I love, I’m so sad because the story is over. If it’s a series, I immediately hit the library website to reserve the next book. If that’s the end or if it’s a stand-alone book, I want to know more about the author and the world I was so captivated by. One thing I do is go to the author or book’s website to find out more. The websites I love the most are the ones that continue the story somehow. It gives you your fix while you wait for the next book to come out. I wanted my readers to be able to continue experiencing camp on my web site, so I have lots of interactive things like camp recipes, instructions on how to make gimp bracelets, camp-themed e-cards, and yes, the FriendLink.

FriendLink came about because a couple of the authors I follow created MySpace or Facebook accounts for some of their fictional characters. You could “friend” them and “talk” to them and meet up with other fans. Well, that didn’t really appeal to me because I didn’t want to comment on a fictional character’s social media page. They can’t really be your friend. They aren’t real. Any comments by the character are, obviously, written by the author, or more likely, someone paid by the author to maintain the online presence. What I wanted to see was those characters interacting online with the other characters from their world. So I thought, why couldn’t mine? I created my own social media site called FriendLink for my book characters. It’s not a real thing; it’s created entirely through HTML coding just like any other web site page. But it’s real to my characters. It starts you out with Abby’s profile, and through her site, you can click on her friends’ profile pictures to get to their profiles. You can also click on “View Messages” under any of the pictures and see what they are writing on each other’s pages. It’s really fun because I get to write from the perspective of just about every character from Camp Spirit. It also kind of got out of hand because my original idea was just to have Abby’s profile. Then I thought I should link to her friends. Then they had to have friends on their profiles, and all of a sudden, I was creating 500-plus pages for FriendLink. It’s very time-consuming and almost like writing an additional book for each volume. But it’s fun and a good character-building exercise for me. And I think readers like to see what the characters are talking about after camp.

Tyler: Jenifer, in closing, will you tell us a little about your life as a writer. I know you’re a stay-at-home mom so how do you find time to write when you have kids, and what advice do you have for any of your readers who may want to become writers?

Jenifer: Writing with kids has been a challenge. There were months when I had infants in the house that not much got done. Now I try to dedicate my son’s afternoon nap towards writing time no matter how many other things I have to get done. I’ve had to realize that housework will always be there, and writing is important. I think that’s the biggest thing for people who want to write to know. That there’s always going to be something else you could and probably should be doing, but you have to value your writing time and sneak it in whenever you can. Sometimes there might not be anything you can do about it, like last year when my daughter had morning preschool and my son took afternoon naps. I had zero alone time to write, so I just had to work with distractions and call on my husband’s help on weekends to get writing time in. But when possible, try to carve out a consistent time, like nap time, to write, even if it means getting behind in other things.

It’s also hard to get out there to events. I know some writers are at various book signings and shows almost every weekend in cities all over. That’s not possible for me. So I have to try to choose the most promising few and hit those. I’m excited to be having my books at the Superior Dome in Marquette at the TV 6 Christmas Craft Show December 2 – 4 for the first time. I’ve been told by several people that it’s huge, and I can’t wait to experience it for myself. I think it will be the biggest show I’ve been at. But being able to go involved finding baby-sitters for the weekend and figuring out how my family’s schedule can fit around me getting there on time. Creative scheduling is always involved in these things. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like for writers who don’t have young children and can pick up and go wherever and whenever they’d like.

If you’re a writer, you won’t be able NOT to write, and it will be a matter of survival to find time to write. I’ve tried several times to take a break or just give it up for all the other things I have going on in life. It doesn’t work. My characters and plots call to me until I finally give in and write again. And I’m not has happy when I’m not writing as when I am. So I’ve learned that I have to write, no matter the time-management challenge.

Tyler: Thanks again, Jenifer, for the opportunity to interview you. I can’t wait for the fifth Abby book this spring! And I look forward to seeing you at the Superior Dome this weekend where we’ll both be selling our books.

Marquette’s Harbor Ridge – the Pickands Home 455 E. Ridge

November 18, 2011

If you’ve seen my video for my book My Marquette, you may recognize this house as the cover image for the video. You can watch the video at my website at:

Following is the fascinating history of one of Marquette’s most beautiful and historic homes, as written in my book My Marquette:

455 E. Ridge St. Marquette Harbor Ridge

Harbor Ridge - 455 E. Ridge Street

Known today as Harbor Ridge, this home was built in 1881 by James Pickands, a colonel during the Civil War who had become the head of a large ore and shipping firm on the Great Lakes and Marquette’s fourth mayor in 1876. Pickands was married to Caroline Martha Outhwaite, daughter of John Outhwaite, a director of the Cleveland Iron Mining Company, who spent his summers in Marquette. Outhwaite’s other daughter, Mary (Caroline’s half-sister), married Jay Morse, who had been an agent for the Cleveland Iron Mining Company. Morse and Pickands as brother-in-laws would be good friends all their lives.

John Outhwaite was one of the first residents in Marquette, actually arriving the year before the town was founded. After sleeping his first night on the sand along the lakeshore, the next day he went with his Indian guides to prospect for iron ore. He located the claims for what would become the Cleveland Iron Mining Company. Although other investors such as Dr. Morgan Hewitt and Samuel Mather played more public roles, John Outhwaite was the largest investor in the company when it was incorporated in 1850.

Outhwaite’s many other business interests included retail and wholesale groceries, provisioning, lamp (lard) oil manufacturing, investment in Cleveland’s first iron mill (which was supplied with ore by Cleveland Iron Mining’s mines), brewing, and land development. (His son John Peet Outhwaite of Ishpeming would follow his father’s lead in the grocery and provisioning business). Outhwaite backed his two sons-in-law and Colonel Pickand’s brother Henry in iron production ventures such as the Bay Furnace as well as several of his nephews in the Blackwell family. While John Outhwaite is predominantly credited with being a Cleveland resident, he was actively involved in the Marquette area and according to his descendant, James Pickands Cass, may well be counted as Marquette’s first millionaire.

Colonel Pickands did well for himself with help from his father-in-law. This beautiful Victorian home he built would contain seven fireplaces, beautiful doors of cherry and walnut, and eighteen rooms, but it would not be home to the Pickands for long. Within a week of moving into the home, Mrs. Pickands died. Rumor said the family had moved into the house before the plaster was dry, which resulted in Mrs. Pickands coming down with pneumonia. Unable to live in the home where his wife had died, Pickands sold the house to Henry C. Thurber, and moved with his children to Cleveland. Despite the move, the Pickands family would remain connected to their former Marquette neighbors. Colonel Pickands’ son Henry C. Pickands, would later marry Jennie Call, daughter of Charles and Bessie Call of Marquette (see 450 E. Ridge). In addition, Colonel Pickands’ sister Anna married William Goodwin and in turn the Goodwin’s daughter Helen married Alfred Maynard, son of Matthew H. Maynard (see 350 E. Ridge). Another of his sisters, Caroline, operated an early school in Marquette which became the inspiration for Carroll Watson Rankin’s novel Stump Village (1935).

Colonel Pickands remarried to Seville Hanna, whose brother, Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna, would be President McKinley’s 1896 campaign manager. After Colonel Pickands died in 1896, his brother-in-law Jay Morse married his widow Seville. Pickands, who had named one of his sons for Jay Morse, probably would have given them his blessing. We can only speculate on what a friendship must have existed between these brother-in-laws. When Morse died in 1906, M.H. Maynard of Marquette said of him, “Jay C. Morse was the most upright and honest man I ever knew. He was thoroughly straight and I don’t believe he ever told a lie in his life. His word was always as good as his bond, and he was well liked by all with whom he came in contact.”

Henry C. Thurber, this home’s second owner, was the co-owner of the Hebard-Thurber Lumber Company. As Marquette’s tenth mayor, he would also help Peter White raise money to build the road to Presque Isle. Thurber did not live in the house for long before selling it to Frank Bennett Spear, Marquette’s ninth mayor.

Frank Spear was married to Sara Kennedy, which linked him to most of the Ridge Street families by marriage. Spear had come to Marquette in 1864. He founded F. B. Spear & Co., later known as Spear & Sons; the dock he built in the harbor early on was the only one to survive the 1868 fire. Spear began his company by dealing in wholesale and retail grain and feed, and in time, the company would also handle coal, wood, lime, brick, cement, fuel oil, sand, gravel, lumber, and other building materials. After Frank Spear’s death in 1924, his sons and grandchildren would carry on the business until the company closed its doors in 1993. I remember going to the Spears building on West Washington Street many times in the 1970s and 1980s with my grandfather, Lester White, so he could pick up wood to do his carpentry work.

Spear’s son, Frank B. Spear II, inherited the home. His wife, Rachel, was a huge collector of bells and her collection was featured in numerous collector magazines. The collection included more than 600 bells from forty countries, one of Bishop Baraga’s altar bells from the Indian Mission on Keweenaw Bay, a silver bell from a lady’s garter, a Chinese costume bell, and the bell to Engine 26 from the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad. Today, the famous Rachel Spear bell collection can be seen on display at the Peter White Public Library.

As for Harbor Ridge, in the late twentieth century, it would belong to another Marquette Mayor, William Birch and his wife Sally. The Birchs became the saviors of Dandelion Cottage when, rather than allow it to be torn down, they moved it to their backyard where it became 440 E. Arch Street.

Discover more Marquette history in My Marquette, available at:

Great Lakes Shipwreck Story is Honest, Fascinating, and Inspiring

November 9, 2011

With the gales of November upon us and our first winter storm happening today, it’s a fitting time to remember all those who have gone to their rest on the Great Lakes.

This summer I had the privilege of visiting the Marquette Maritime Museum and briefly talking to Dennis Hale, the sole survivor of the steamship Daniel J. Morrell, which went down on Lake Huron on November 29, 1966. I am not a big fan of shipwreck books, but I like to support local events and the museum, and Hale was there signing his autobiography Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor, An Autobiography by Dennis Hale. But what really made me interested was when I heard that Dennis Hale had lived through not only a shipwreck but also a near-death experience, and my constant interest in religion and spirituality propelled me to go pick up a copy of Hale’s book.

I was surprised when I arrived at the museum; there was actually a line to get a copy of Hale’s book–something that doesn’t happen with most book signings I’ve been to in Upper Michigan. I only got to speak to Hale for a minute–I would have asked him a dozen questions if I had thought of them at the time. I certainly had them after I read his fascinating book.

First of all, the book is self-published, but it reads so smoothly and is so full of suspense and so well-organized that I am happy to say it is a shining example of the quality of book a self-published author can produce when he does it right. I was wholly engrossed in this book right from the beginning. Hale retells his experience of the shipwreck with the skill of a master novelist. Part of the reason why the reader never becomes bored is because Hale balances the shipwreck scenes to keep the tension alive with a look back at his troubled childhood of abuse, running away from home, and juvenile troubles with the law, all of which eventually led to his being on the ore boats and ultimately on the ill-fated Daniel J. Morrell.

I will not recount the full details of the book here because I wouldn’t want to deprive the reader from a gripping read, but here are just a few things that stunned me about his experience. First, I was astounded by the fact that the Daniel Morrell was built in 1906–that a sixty-year old ship was still used boggles my mind–that the ship had serious issues that compromised its stability yet that it was still used is even more unbelievable. I was also stunned after the rescue by how Hale was treated. He was interrogated by the company he worked for until he felt like they were accusing him of having done something wrong during the ship’s sinking. He also tried to share his near-death experience with the priest who gave him last rites, only to be told not to talk about it.

While the story alone is fascinating, what I truly found appealing was how introspective Hale was. The psychological aspects of the book were definitely the strongest in a very strong narrative. While waiting to be rescued and wondering whether he would be, Hale began to think God was punishing him for his past behaviors, which then spurred his memories of the past that he shares with the reader. Even after he is rescued, Hale is introspective, questioning why he survived and whether he truly had a near-death experience. He tried to avoid all the publicity that resulted from his being the sole survivor of the shipwreck, and being haunted by the event led to a troubled marriage and substance abuse.

And then, something shifted inside him when he heard about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He realized he had a mission and started to advocate for Great Lakes Safety which led to his sharing his story with the public. I suspect the world wasn’t ready in 1966 to hear what he had to say, but by the late 1970s and 1980s they were. At first, Hale was reluctant to speak and found it difficult to find the words when he did, but overtime, he realized people were receptive to his message. He realized he had suffered from PTSD as a result of his experiences, and he became involved with the International Association of Near Death Studies. Giving talks about his experiences eventually defused much of the anxiety he still felt over the past.

Few books have offered a more honest portrait of a man trying to find meaning and answers in his life against a more dramatic experience. I highly recommend Shipwrecked to all readers, and I sincerely hope Dennis Hale has found his peace at last.

Hale’s book is available at Snowbound Books in Marquette and the Marquette Maritime Museum as well as online bookstores. I feel honored to have crossed Hale’s path, even if only briefly.

Marquette’s First Baptist Church

November 1, 2011

Marquette’s first Baptist Church was established in 1863. It was a small wooden church on Front Street where the Marquette County Historical Museum was later located beside the current library. My ancestors, the McCombies and the Zryds, first came to Marquette in the 1870s and this church would have been the one they attended. My great-great grandparents, William Forrest McCombie and Elizabeth May Zryd, were probably married inside it in 1882.

The First Baptist Church today - Marquette, Michigan

When the congregation outgrew this small church, in 1886, a new church was built across the street where today is the Landmark Inn’s parking lot. This church was well-known in the community especially for its fabulous organ, a Hook and Haster, for a long time one of the best organs in the state. My great-grandmother and her children would know this church intimately, and although a Catholic, my mother occasionally attended services here with her grandmother.

As with many downtown buildings, fire destroyed the Baptist Church in 1965. Rather than rebuild downtown, the congregation erected a new church in North Marquette on Kaye Street, behind the music and theatre buildings of Northern Michigan University.

In Superior Heritage, Margaret Dalrymple writes in her diary in 1962 about what it meant to her to be a member of the First Baptist Church. The passage is based on a similar one in the diary of my great-grandmother, Barbara McCombie White:

This Sunday the eldest Baptist members now attending church were honored. There were 9 of us but only 5 were there. Sadie Johnson, as church clerk, pinned corsages on all of us and then we had pictures taken for The Mining Journal. We all were requested to get up on the platform and give a little talk of days gone by. I was afraid I’d be stage struck, but this is what I said. “Many years ago when my parents came to Marquette they joined the Baptist church and I was raised in it. When I was 11 years old I went to a revival meeting & was converted. Shortly after I was baptized in this church. Since then, some of my happiest moments have been spent in Sabbath school and church. I had good Christian parents who taught me the right way to live and guided me through the years. I have tried to follow their example and am proud to say that I have good children, all of whom act like Christians even if they don’t go to church regularly. I think God loves everyone no matter who we are and we each have different tasks to do. I think this church has helped lots of people, and I am proud to have been a member all these years.”

My great-grandmother lived long enough to celebrate her 75th anniversary as a member of the Baptist church. After her death, her children Barbara, Roland, Kit, Frank, and Sadie (the real church clerk mentioned in the passage above) would continue attending. Barbara would become a deaconess of the church, and my great-aunt Sadie at age ninety-two remains very active in the church. My grandfather, Lester White, before marrying, taught Sunday school at the church as did his cousin, Marjorie Woodbridge Johnson. As for my Uncle Kit, as a boy he did his part by passing the collection basket and taking a chunk of the money home with him, which his parents immediately made him return.

My experiences with the Baptist Church have largely been limited to attending family funerals. I’m always struck during these occasions by the wonderful old Baptist hymns, including one of my great-grandmother’s favorites, “In The Garden.” The church ladies always outdo themselves with the funeral luncheons and their other church activities. I am sure my great-grandmother would be happy to know her church’s good work continues well into the twenty-first century.

Note: This entry is taken from my book My Marquette, available at local bookstores and