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An Interview with Jana DeLeon

soldiers ofJana DeLeon is a former CFO who jumped off the corporate ladder to write books.  Today she’s a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author (Louisiana Longshot, Soldiers of Fortune).

DeLeon was raised in southwest Louisiana among the bayous and gators. Her hometown is Carlyss, but you probably won’t find it on a map. Her family owned a camp located on a bayou just off the Gulf of Mexico that you could only get to by boat. The most important feature was the rope hammock hanging in the shade on a huge deck that stretched out over the water where Jana spent many hours reading books.

Loren Kleinman (LK): How do you define Indie? Are you indie?

Jana DeLeon (JD): An indie author is a writer who independently publishes their work. That does not mean that indies don’t hire out tasks such as formatting, editing and cover design, but an indie author always maintains rights to their books and maintains control of pricing and distribution.

LK: Talk about the work behind becoming a New York Times bestseller? Is there a particular formula for getting there?

JD: I know some authors would love for me to say “yes, there’s a formula” but I’d be lying. Hitting a bestseller list is a combination of writing a book that resonates with readers and timing of release. Writing a series usually helps build readership more quickly than individual title. Using a pre-order button can garner you a bulk drop of sales that help hit bestseller list. Having direct contact with your readers through newsletters, Facebook, Twitter and other social media can help you gain enough velocity on release week to hit a bestseller list.

LK: Tell us about your craft. Can you describe your editing process? Are you a heavy reviser?

JD: I write a rough draft first and it has comments in the middle of the book and highlighted items like “check this” all over the copy. I make a pass to address all the things I’ve marked for research/verification then I make another pass to tweak things I might have slighted, such as description. I send the book to my editor after that and she flags any redundancy, inconsistency, and points out areas where things might not be clear.

LK: When did you decide to become a writer?

JD: I have written stories since elementary school, but I decided to attempt a career at my grandma’s funeral. I had just finished reading a couple of Janet Evanovich books and had returned to Louisiana, for the first time in many year, to attend my grandma’s funeral. As I was standing in the cemetery, watching the completely odd and absurd behavior of family and friends, I thought “If Janet can do it in New Jersey, then I can do it in Louisiana.”

LK: Who is your mentor? Who do you look up too?

JD: My writing mentor is Jane Graves. She took me on at a local RWA group meeting and helped me fine-tune my writing so that I sold to a New York publisher. The writer I respect the most is Agatha Christie. She wrote very intricate mysteries that fooled readers by appearing deceptively simple. If I had one-tenth of her ability, I’d be thrilled.

LK: Who are your supporters/cheerleaders?

JD: My husband, who is also my marketing/promotions manager and runs my street team and never once considered that I couldn’t succeed at writing fiction. My parents are my original street team members. I often receive email from readers who have been accosted in Walmart by one of them. They also give out autographed books and bookmarks while on vacation. And, of course, my author friends. No one really “gets” what we go through like another author. Having trusted author friends is an invaluable tool for emotional health.

LK: What are some of your favorite books right now? Who are your favorite indie authors and why?

JD: I’ve been on a horror reading kick lately and have enjoyed works by Blake Crouch and Scott Nicholson. I love Theresa Ragan’s Lizzy Gardner Series. Her heroine is damaged in a way that is critical to the plots of the books. And Theresa does not hesitate to ratchet up the conflict at every opportunity. I also love the Rose Gardner Series by Denise Grover Swank [EDS NOTE: On this week’s List Where Indies Count bestseller list!]. We share so many crossover readers that we’re co-authoring a Christmas novella combining two of the main characters from each of our series in one story.

LK: What was it like growing up in the bayou? When did your fascination with gators start?

JD: I don’t know that I’d call it a fascination as much as it was a reality. Gators were simply there as long as I can remember. My parents had a camp (Louisiana’s name for “cabin”) on a bayou off the Gulf of Mexico. You could only get there by boat. Gators were part of the experience whether they were sunbathing on the bank, swimming down the bayou, or caught on the pier when the tide went out.

The best part of bayou living is the seafood. My parents had a barge and we had three commercial deep freezers full of fresh shrimp, fish and crabs. It was completely normal for us to eat seafood several times a week. And my mom makes the absolute best fried shrimp ever.

LK: What themes do you address in your books? What draws you to writing about those themes?

JD: I address themes such as look deeper than the surface, you never really know someone, and family can be chosen. I am fascinated by criminals who manage to fool everyone around them for decades and wonder if those around never looked close enough or had their heads in the sand, or if the bad guy was simply that good at hiding all his secrets.

The family theme is a favorite of mine because so many people have family that they wouldn’t choose. But you don’t have to be blood relatives to be family.

LK: Are your female heroines anti-heroines? Why or why not?

JD: Several of my heroines are anti-heroines. They have careers unrelated to law enforcement and are forced into investigating as a form of self-protection. My heroine in the Miss Fortune series is a CIA assassin, but is deep undercover and her life is on the line if her cover is blown. So even though she has the ability to apprehend bad guys, she’s better off if she remains uninvolved.

LK: Talk about a low point in your writing career. How did you overcome it?

JD: When Dorchester started to tank, I recognized (as a former accountant) the signs early on. I had a third book to write in a contract for a series that I had been really excited about when I sold it but that the publisher had essentially let die because of their financial problems. I knew the entire time I was writing that third book that I would never see another dime for it, but I had to wrap up an overarching mystery for readers because I did not want to leave them hanging. At that point, I had no other publisher and indie publishing was not yet a thing.

Then things turned around. I wrote the book and held it hostage for the rest of my advance. Shortly after its release, Dorchester was in breach of contract and my agent got my rights back. I self-published my backlist at the end of 2010 and the rest is beautiful history.

LK: What made you leave your full time job and chose writing? Were you scared?

JD: Once my indie earning were over four times what I was making at my day job, I started thinking hard about quitting. The problem was, I had a really great day job. Great pay and benefits, no overtime, work from home days, flexible hours, no stress and I actually enjoyed the work. I probably wouldn’t have quit except for a corporate shuffling that moved me to work for the one person in the company I thought was the most useless.

At that point, I wasn’t scared because, being an accountant, I’d prepared. I had paid off all debt and had two years of salary in the bank. It was the perfect time to do it and I’m glad that I did. My career could never have taken off like it did if I hadn’t had that additional time to devote to my indie work.

LK: What do you love about writing? What do you struggle with?

JD: The thing I love most about writing is the thing I also struggle with the most. I wanted to write books because I love reading. Books were my escape from boredom or sadness or any other emotion that you might not want to face that moment. When I decided to write books, I hoped to give that same escape to other people that so many authors had given me.

Readers often write to me about how my books have helped them escape, and I love that, but the stories are so sad. So many people reading to dying relatives and reading my books while going through chemotherapy. I’m so happy that I’m helping them get through tough times, but at the same time, I wish the tough times would vanish.

LK: What’s been the hardest novel you’ve ever written? Why was it so hard?

JD: The hardest novel I’ve ever written was the third novel under the Dorchester contract. Knowing I’d never be paid aside, I had plans for the series to be long running. It killed me to take an awesome concept and wrap it up in only three books because of a company’s financial mismanagement.

LK: What’s your advice on rejection?

JD: Everyone gets rejected. Look at the reasons why. If there are valid items contained in the rejection, then address them. If you don’t feel they’re valid, assume it simply wasn’t a match and move on. My husband is fond of saying “that’s why there’s blue cars and brown cars.” Everyone’s taste is not the same.

LC: If you could come back as any animal or reptile what would it be and why?

I would come back as one of my dogs. They have the life of Riley!

LK: How would your friends describe you in 10 words or less?

JD: Brutally honest, loyal, generous, smart, funny, hard working, reliable

LK: What’s your current guilty pleasure?

JD: A Yamaha 250 2-stroke race bike!

LK: If you wouldn’t be a writer, what you would be?

JD: A Formula 1 racecar driver or a spy.