Jenifer Rowe

Interview

Jenifer Rowe writes short stories, essays and memoir.  Her work has been published in Scarlet Leaf Review, Crack the Spine, Wildflower Muse, Liars League NYC, the Sacramento Bee, and the 2018 and 2019 issues of California Literary Review.  She earned Finalist distinction in the New Millennium Writings 46th Literary Awards.  Jenifer is a board member of the California Writers Club – Sacramento Branch, which has supported and encouraged writers for 109 years.  She lives in El Dorado Hills, California with her partner. Unexpected Findings is her first novel.

Q: What is the plot of Unexpected Findings?

A: “Twelve-year-old La’Teesha Baxter (Tess) wakes up in a hospital with her head bandaged, her mother missing, and no memory of the previous twenty-four hours.  She is tossed into the foster system, and after suffering repeated abuse over the next year, she finally runs off to live on the streets. Now thirteen, she is struggling to survive on her own when she meets Irv, an eighty-five-year-old widower with a hoarding problem and a reluctance to leave his house. The two soon find that each can provide the other with what they most need, and she temporarily moves in.  Tess wants shelter while she looks for her mother. Irv is fending off his son’s attempts to move him out of his home. When Irv has a stroke and Tess disappears, the tension rises.”

Q: Where did the idea for Unexpected Findings come from?

A: “The story began as a prize-winning 700-word flash fiction piece, in which I tried to envision a modern-day “odd couple” – two people from very different backgrounds who are thrown together and find they can be of help to each other. When people kept asking me what happens next, I decided to turn it into a novel.

The premise starts out with each individual trying to see what they can get from the other party, with a high degree of mistrust on both of their parts.  Gradually, the relationship grows into one of symbiosis, where each of them sustains the other for mutual benefit. I am a biologist by education, and I wanted to explore how a functional agreement between two people (as with any two organisms) could develop into something more resembling a family structure.”

Q: Why do these two people – Tess and Irv – seem to fall so easily into their situation with each other?

A: “They are both outsiders, isolated from the normal workings of society and cut off from the community support systems that most people rely on.  Tess has no parents and no other family.  Irv has, with the exception of his partially estranged son, shut himself off from the world through his own choices. Their temporary agreement serves both of them and seems to be “low risk” in the beginning.  They each have to re-evaluate the situation as they grow closer and the stakes rise.”

Q: How did you choose your setting and timeframe?

A: “I wanted an industrial city that was a destination for participants of the Great Migration, the movement of former slaves northward in the first part of the 20th century.  In some cases, only a few individuals from a particular family moved north, which would help to explain why Tess had no nearby relatives. I wanted a city with a strong jazz culture, since Tess’s absent father was a musician. So I chose Pittsburgh.

I opened the story at the start of summer, when authorities would not notice Tess’s absence from any classroom. As well, the weather would be mild enough for her to live on the streets. The timing also made it possible for Irv to set a deadline on their temporary arrangement.”

Q: How do you envision Tess?

A: “Tess is a smart and scrappy girl.  She was raised by a strong woman who fell prey to economic frailty, and who may have made some bad decisions.  Tess is determined to survive, and she’s not going to give up easily. She is also wary and more than a little distrustful of others, which makes her reluctant to ask for help.”

Q: Which characters were hard to write, and which were easier?

A: “I felt that I knew both Tess and Irv right away. I knew what they looked and sounded like, what their hopes and fears were, and I could “hear” their dialog. Sometimes I felt like I was taking dictation from them.  

Rose (Tess’s mother) was more difficult in the latter part of the book, mostly because I was completely unfamiliar with what she was going through.  Fortunately, I had a fantastic editor with personal experience of a similar situation, and he helped me to instill her scenes with more realism.

A couple of the other characters were more challenging, as each was an antagonist in different ways.  But a writer does not want to create a villain who is one-dimensional, and so to me, writing the antagonist(s) is always the toughest task.”

Q: What is your history of reading and writing?

A: “I have always read voraciously, both fiction (in many genres) and nonfiction. I have been studying the craft of writing for decades. Once my three children were teenagers with more independence, I found the time to seriously pursue publication for my short stories, memoir and personal essays. A few years ago, I joined a writer’s club, and it has been a great source of information, support and contacts.”

 

Q: Do you have any personal experience with the foster system? 

A: “Five of my (multiracial) nieces and nephews were adopted out of foster care. For almost ten years, I have been a member of Women United, an international branch of United Way whose mission is to support foster teens as they prepare to age out of the system. I have read the personal accounts of former foster children, and I have also heard testimonials from many of them.  

My story is not an attempt to vilify foster care, as I have personally known good and loving foster parents. It is an unpleasant truth, however, that not all foster placements are rosy situations and that kids can get lost in the system.”