Author Janet White
I learned to read at the age of three. My family lived in Boston at the time in a small apartment. The two student teachers who lived upstairs were practicing by teaching my older sister Linda to read, and no-one realized I was eavesdropping until Linda discovered me reading my own bedtime story aloud. By the age of five at elementary school back in the UK I was wowing my own teachers with my advanced vocabulary. The other mothers tried to discover my mother’s secret in producing a genius – what did she eat while pregnant with me?
At seven I graduated to junior school and I remember devouring all the books in the tall cabinet at the end of the hall in my first year at the new school. I loved Enid Blyton’s mysteries and school stories and would read them by flashlight under the bedclothes at night. Later I moved on to Agatha Christie and the world of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, and by the time I entered my teenage years I excelled in creative writing. However in England, where I was educated, children specialize early and inspired by my father’s example, I chose to pursue the sciences. My father is a professor of physics, and my two sisters and I all chose to follow in his footsteps, one way or another, starting in physics or crystallography before our careers bifurcated later on. Thus, at the tender age of fourteen, I stopped writing and focused instead on equations, proofs and theorems.
I remained an avid reader – purely for the pleasure of the printed word – and spent long summer holidays lying in sweet-scented piles of hay in the fields behind our house, with my nose buried in a novel, or lazing on a Cornish beach with a book held aloft, shading my eyes from the sun. When I went to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences, I envied the students majoring in English Literature. As I cycled from lecture to lecture and labored through practical science classes in the laboratory I wondered what it would be like to sit around and read novels all day and earn my degree that way. Instead, I educated myself by reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and other books that seemed to be on the literary curriculum. I attended Cambridge in the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era, and so formed a habit of writing a letter to my mother every Thursday afternoon about my life as a Cambridge undergraduate. Mummy told me that she kept all my letters and boasted to her friends that she would turn them into a book one day – a daughter’s memoir.
She never got around to writing that book and the letters languished in her bedside drawer until my parents moved to America again and tossed them out, with so much of the flotsam and jetsam accumulated over so many years.
I graduated and went to work as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. After three years at the laboratory bench I realized that equations, proofs and theorems were not enough for me – I craved more human interaction, I was more fascinated by understanding what made people tick than by chemical structures. I studied for an MBA, apprehensively at first, as I wasn’t sure I was still able to write coherent prose after all those years of charts, symbols and diagrams. I waited with bated breath for the first year exam results and to my great relief I scored highly. I could still write! Thirteen years of scientific training, without exercising my writing abilities, I could still do it! Post MBA, I changed career and went into strategy consulting. I loved my new work, especially the travel. I worked for clients all over Europe – Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, even the Middle East. During the dot com boom I co-founded a start-up (didn’t everyone back then in the late ‘90’s?) and moved from London to the USA. I continued my literary education, this time on the American curriculum, by reading all the great American classic books that I could find in the public library – Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, and “From Sea to Shining Sea”. But in 2001 the economy weakened and for the next decade I struggled with instability in the pharmaceutical and consulting industries. I started to look for other ways to find fulfillment. I started reading biographies of famous people – business leaders, writers and musicians – to uncover the secrets of their success.
They say that everyone has a book in them. I’ve had several ideas over the years for the book I wanted to write. At one time, it was a cookbook with descriptions of various herbs and recipes featuring each one. At another time it was a feminist diatribe entitled “Motherhood is for Mugs”. The ideas kept coming but none of them alone was sufficient for a book, or had been done many times before by other authors. In 2008 I found myself once again between jobs. I spent a lot of time networking and over tea one morning started brainstorming a joint book project with a Venture Capitalist friend Killu who like me, was between jobs and dissatisfied with the status quo. Our book was to be about the reasons why senior level women were leaving their top jobs in Corporate America; we would set up focus groups and interview women of our acquaintance to develop content for the book. Killu suggested we start a blog to gather ideas, and that is how “Corporate California Women” began. Fired up with enthusiasm, I drew up a list of topics and started to blog. After three weeks however I was running out of steam; Killu had got busy with other projects and my blog had failed to draw a single comment from any followers; what’s more, I was out of ideas. I realized that I didn’t have enough content to write a business book and that’s when the idea of a novel was born – why not write a work of fiction instead?
One of my passions is music; I play the cello. At the time I was playing continuo cello for a production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”’ with the La Jolla Renaissance Singers, a madrigal group. Our conductor, Bill Propp, gave a fascinating pre-concert lecture in which he divulged that in the original story from the Aeneid, Dido doesn’t quietly fade away after singing her famous lament “When I am Laid in Earth”. Instead, after Aeneas deserts her, she builds a pyre from the weapons he left behind and then leaps on to it and burns to death. I was struck by the story and this was the seed from which the premise of the Phoenix mystery developed. In my novel, “Daughters’ Dilemma”, the heroine, an archaeologist, stumbles upon the secret of the Phoenix – that the legendary bird is somehow embodied by famous women leaders of history, first Dido and then Joan of Arc, and ultimately Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, all of whom perished in the flames. In this way my book about women scientists and their careers took on elements of the mystery stories beloved of my youth and acquired an Indian setting. The section in Cambridge and the concept of letters between a mother and daughter have some autobiographical elements too. Other themes include the many references to birds and also the descriptions of food, which extends to recipes in the back. You could say that this book contains many facets of, and takes inspiration from many elements of my own life and experience.
I spent about six months researching the book before I started to write; I read thick tomes on modern Indian history, Egyptology, and Joan of Arc. Writing the book took just over a year, mainly at times when I was traveling on business; I was re-employed by then and working in Business Development which afforded me many opportunities to travel. Most of the writing was done on long plane journeys and in hotel rooms away from the distractions of home. I worked out the plot first, as painstakingly as a strategic plan, and then developed my characters. When the book was complete, I started to contact literary agents, and after receiving some interest, hired an editor, Beverly Trainer, to work with me to polish up the manuscript. I also attended the La Jolla Writers’ Conference, where I gained some helpful feedback and suggestions for the book, and spent some more time on a more substantial rewrite.
It’s very satisfying to see the fruits of my labors in print; not only have I created a personal legacy in “Daughters’ Dilemma” but I’ve also learned a tremendous amount about writing and publishing in the process. I’m currently working on three additional book projects: “Boda Tales”, a set of short stories that paint a picture of contemporary culture in Uganda from the perspective of a motorcycle taxi driver; “Governor and Genesee”, a novel about intersections in the lives of people in a community; and “An African ABC”, a children’s book intended as a fundraiser for a home for street children in Uganda. I like to think that the varied and multicolored strands of my life and interests entwine to produce their own unique DNA, which in turn spawns my writing.