Nicole - Q & A
you tell us a little bit about your creative journey?
I’ve always been the one in the family to do drawings,
sketches, come up with creative, out-of-the-box solutions. I got a degree
in Journalism and another in Illustration and wrote articles for newspapers
a while back. Nothing too creative though. I don’t think my true
passion for creating was awakened until I was pregnant with my first
child. Since then, I’ve started my own web design business, begun
painting and writing books. My first novel, The Spirit of Sweetgrass,
came out in March 2007. My next novel, Trouble the Water, will
be out in February, 2008. My paintings are actually on the covers of
those books as well!
What inspires you?
My children and husband inspire me to be the very best that
I can be!
Do you have any creative dreams you could share?
My biggest creative dreams are for my children. I want them
to know that they can achieve whatever God puts upon their hearts to
do. I’m here to support them in the best way I can.
How long had you been writing before you got
the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your
I have a background in journalism and non-fiction writing,
but had never attempted fiction until I was expecting my daughter in
2003 when I penned a middle grade novel which is still unpublished.
My next work of fiction was The Spirit of Sweetgrass which I began in
October 2004 and completed just 5 months later. I contracted with an
agent then in March 2005 and the book sold to Integrity Publishers in
February 2006, just 11 months later.
My “call” was actually an email from my agent.
He was heading into a meeting but wanted me to know he’d received
an offer for two books. Not one but TWO! I remember my two young children
were with me, but they weren’t nearly as excited as I was. I tried
to call my husband, my mother, my sister, and finally, my neighbor across
the street, but no one was home. It was a strange moment because I wanted
desperately to share it with someone in order to make it seem real!
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding
Absolutely. And I hope I never get to the point where I don’t
doubt my work. If I do, it will mean I think I know it all (and I’ll
be unbearable to be around) or perhaps I’m not taking enough risks
in my writing. I want to always push the envelope.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard
From Pat Conroy, “If you gotta do it, you gotta do it.”
I think he means it’s a tough business, but if you’ve been
graced with the passion to write, you need to be faithful to that passion
and see it through.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice
“Read everything you can about writing craft.”
Focusing too much on craft could take the surprise and magic out of
writing and potentially lead to bland, formulaic works.
What’s something you wish you’d known
earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing
I wish I’d known exactly how long it takes to push through
the publishing process. I tend to get anxious, wondering what’s
happening on my publisher’s end, my agent’s end. If I knew
more about the process, I think this first year may not have been so
nerve-wracking. The only way to alleviate this anxiety is experience,
What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written
A few favorites are The Kitchen God’s Wife and
The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan, Keeper of the
House by Rebecca T. Godwin, The Historian by Elizabeth
Kostova, and Roseflower Creek by J.L. Miles.
If you could choose to have one strength of another
writer, what would it be and from whom?
I would choose to never worry about what might sell, what is
marketable. I would love to be able to simply write what is on my heart
and never worry about the reviews, never care what people think. I would
love for my inspiration to be unhampered like that, but realistically,
I don’t know if it’s possible.
The closest example I can think of is author Pat Conroy.
When he wrote The Boo, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline,
he risked great upheaval with his father and his school, The Citadel.
Yet in the end, he stuck to his guns, his relationship with his father
improved, and today The Citadel celebrates him as a cherished and honored
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing,
something you would love to accomplish?
My dream? I want to be able to write for the rest of my life,
book after book after book. And I hope to get better each time. And
of course, I’d like to make bestseller status so I could reach
as many people as possible. I love the idea of touching people though
my words. It’s an amazing feeling and responsibility, and I take
it very seriously.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you
thought of quitting?
Yes, before it even began! I wrote a children’s picture
book once and sent it off to publishers. I got form letter rejections
from all. The impersonal nature of it was daunting and exhausting. But
it didn’t stop me, thank goodness. And in my heart, I still have
a desire to write children’s books. One of these days it will
What is your favorite and least favorite part
of being a writer?
My favorite part of writing fiction is taking the journey into
my own imaginative worlds. I also cherish the ability to examine my
own personal issues through writing; I find it very cathartic. My least
favorite part is the waiting on publication.
How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this
The first thing I did was read Publicize Your Book by Jacqueline
Deval. I wanted to educate myself on the process. I have a website,
a blog, and I’ve begun speaking to groups. I’m trying to
learn how to market and talk about my own book and writing. I don’t
think it comes naturally for many writers who feel more comfortable
sitting behind a computer screen than in front of many people. But practice
your talks, get used to the praise, get used to the questions. And accept
as quickly as you can that not everyone needs to like or “get”
Advice for writers?
The publishing business is very subjective. Believe in yourself.
Most of all, believe in what you write. At the end of the day, if you
don’t have that, you will waver with every review, every criticism,
and you will burn out faster than you can imagine.
Write what YOU must write, and do your absolute best.
Don’t worry about what someone else is doing. Greatness comes
from innovation. Happy writing!
Your debut book celebrates the rich heritage
and culture of the lowcountry of South Carolina. What gave you the inspiration
for this story?
Looking back, I can see so many factors that led to the writing
of this book—so many things that God placed in my life to lead
me to The Spirit of Sweetgrass. Yes, I did have an "epiphany"
while I was driving home past sweetgrass basket stands when I was expecting
my second child. The idea struck me with such force—truly from
out of nowhere—that I had to grab a pen and start jotting notes
on the back of a receipt. But even before that, I can see how my upbringing
on a Southern sea island (Hilton Head Island) inspired me. I grew up
in a place with a strong Gullah/Geechee population, but I never understood
the importance of it all until I moved to Mount Pleasant, SC, where
one of the most visible Gullah art forms is celebrated--sweetgrass basketry.
Somehow, and for some reason, God chose to open my heart, my mind, and
my spirit a few years ago to the plight and struggles of my African
American neighbors, and I'm so grateful for it. I'm changed because
How much of your own experiences influenced the
characters of Essie Mae and Daddy Jim? What aspects became traits that
were theirs and theirs alone?
"Daddy Jim" is named after my grandfather who passed
away in 1996. He was a quiet, gentle man who, to this day, remains a
calming force in the lives of those who knew him. My character, Daddy
Jim, shares his admirable qualities.
"Essie Mae" is a true Southern lady. I've been
blessed with many strong Southern women in my life to model this for
me, but Essie Mae is really an amalgamation of two women: my grandmother,
and a sweetgrass basket weaver/nanny who took care of me while on bed
rest with my second pregnancy.
Growing up, my grandmother was strong-willed and feisty,
yet loved each member of her family with everything she had in her.
She'd do anything for her children and grandchildren. My grandmother
is the one person in my family who taught me to love the Lord. She would
tell me not to drive anywhere without buckling Him in and going "first
class." She's now 89-years-old and lives in a nursing home in North
Carolina. I have seen my mother's anguish over the years, watching her
mother get older. Making the decision to put a loved one in a home is
never an easy one, but it's something I know many families are faced
with, so I wanted to include it in the book.
The African American woman who cared for me and my daughter
when I was on bed rest added her voice and her "praises to Jesus"
to my sweet Essie Mae, fortifying her character.
What themes exist in Spirit of Sweetgrass that
you hope the reader sees? Are there any themes that weren't overt but
developed as the story progressed?
One of the most overt and important themes is that we are all
connected, past, present, and future. What we do with our lives is so
important, and if we live as God intends, I believe our impact on earth
does not end when we get to Heaven.
Another important theme: family. If you are blessed to
have it, next to God, nothing is more important than family. That's
something I hope readers take away from this book.
What were your most difficult parts to write?
I won't say exactly which scenes were the most difficult because
I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say if you read a scene that
packs an emotional wallop—trust me—it did the same to me
when I wrote it. Often those scenes seemed to write themselves, and
I found myself in tears when it was all over.
My favorite scenes to write were the first few in Heaven
when I allowed my mind to soar with the possibilities.
Where were you when you got "the call"?
I work at home to be with my two small children, and my “call”
was actually an email. I remember getting this note from my agent right
before lunch: “Nicole, in meetings, but just got an offer for
a two-book deal. Let’s talk this afternoon.”
I squealed, and my kids didn’t know what was wrong
with me. They really could care less that “Mommy just got a book
dea!” Two books, no doubt! So I tried to call my husband to tell
him the good news. No luck. He wasn’t answering. Then I tried
my mother, who happens to be my reader. She wasn’t in. I tried
my sister. No good. Finally, my neighbor across the street? NO ONE was
home! Here was my moment, the LONG-AWAITED moment that I’d lie
in bed at night dreaming about. Here it was, and it wasn’t quite
how I’d imagined. So I sucked it up, and tried to go about my
day until the long awaited conversation that afternoon!
Most Memorable Moment about "the call"?
The most memorable thing about that email was realizing I’d
just crossed a line—THE line between unpublished and published—and
I remember thinking that there didn’t seem to be that much difference
between the two. I was still just as anxious and insecure as I’d
been on the un-pubbed side!
How to you stay determined?
That’s simple: I believe I have something to say. As
long as I am true to the voice and the story that God gives me, it’s
my duty, my joy, to persevere.
Have you had any dream breakers?
Thankfully, most people in my life are very supportive of
my work. And I find that they become even MORE supportive when something
sells! However, I have gotten impersonal form rejections before and
moped around a bit, but then picked myself up and tried to make my writing
Why do you think your first book sold?
I believe it’s the voice of Essie Mae Laveau Jenkins
that sold my agent and publisher. My main character is so authentic,
so loveable; you just want to listen to whatever she has to tell you.
I’ve learned that there is so much to know about the
publishing business, and basically, you’re the only one who will
look out for you and your book. Learn everything you can. Read books
about the process and ask questions. Being a new novelist, you’re
at the bottom of the totem pole. You have to struggle for everything
you get after signing a contract whether it’s a blurb from an
author, edits, etc. That’s why it’s imperative that you
BELIEVE in your work. Even though the publisher may have a publicist
and sales people working on your behalf, you must be vigilant in getting
the word out and promoting the book yourself. Ask what you can do to
help your publisher or publicist. You have the same goal after all—selling
lots of books!
Describe your creative process:
The creative process is the most fun a body can have! When I’m
in the groove, really listening to my muse, it’s a taste of heaven.
What I’ve learned about my creative process is that I cannot force
it. If I try to make something work instead of letting my characters
tell their story, it just doesn’t work out.
What is the symbolism for the title The Spirit
Sweetgrass basket making is a Gullah family tradition passed
down through generations, and still going on today in the Lowcountry.
The act of making sweetgrass baskets—combining ordinary things
to make something extraordinary—is exactly what the book is about.
It’s what family is all about. And it’s this connection
to past and to ancestors that fuels the plot of The Spirit of Sweetgrass.
Do you have a favorite character? Why?
Essie Mae is my favorite character, hands down. She became
so real to me in the writing of this book that I actually longed to
hug her! I’ll never be the same after telling her story.
How much research did The Spirit of Sweetgrass
I began my research on the computer since I was home-bound
due to pregnancy and having two small children. I did, however, venture
out to Boone Hall Plantation to learn how to make baskets from a local
sweetgrass basket weaver. I needed to know what it felt like to make
a basket in order to do the book justice. After the book was written,
I worked closely with the Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and
a scholar at College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for
African American Studies to make sure my characters, the Gullah language,
and Mount Pleasant African-American vernacular was authentic. Through
my research, I’ve met and befriended some of the most remarkable
Who was the person who influenced you the most
with your writing?
My mother is an avid reader, so I grew up around books. Every
morning at 6:00 am, I could find her in her glasses at the kitchen table,
reading away. These days, my mother is my reader, the person who gives
me constructive feedback and is brutally honest with me. We tend to
like similar books, and I trust her opinions.
What advice would you give to a person trying
to become a fiction writer?
Find your voice. Your voice. Voice is everything. Anyone can
tell a story, but only you can tell the stories on your heart. If there
is something that has always fascinated you, then by all means, mix
it up with the unique locations and experiences of your life, and you’ll
find a story truly worth telling. But do it your way, not like anyone
What message would you like your readers to take
away from this book?
Writing The Spirit of Sweetgrass has been a life-altering experience
for me. Not only did it introduce me to the world of publishing, but
it opened my eyes to the struggles of the African-American sweetgrass
basket weavers in my community. I hope that readers will be touched
by the story of my sweet Essie Mae, that their imaginations may soar
while exploring Heaven, and that they'll have fun learning about the
little-known but important Gullah/Geechee people.
What is your goal or mission as a writer?
To keep my ears open, to be faithful to the stories that God
puts on my heart, and to continue writing books for as long as God gives
me a voice.