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Finding your voice
A celebrated author with ties to Milwaukee on recovering from disaster and developing your own style

Photos by Janet Kay

August 2016

When her debut novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean," was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the first choice for the talk show hostís book club, people said she was lucky. Boosted by the exposure, Jacquelyn Mitchardís book sold more than 3 million copies.

"There was nothing about it that wasnít wonderful," Mitchard says, even though some told her that the Winfrey endorsement could set her up for unreasonable expectations in her career.

The former Milwaukee Journal columnist has had plenty of luck in her life, both kinds. But Mitchard makes no apologies for being ambitious, especially when sheís had to be. She lost her first husband to cancer early on. Widowed with two children, she wrote "The Deep End of the Ocean." She kept writing, penning 20 more books and articles for national magazines.

A few years ago, she and her husband, Chris, lost every cent they had to what sheís described in a magazine article as "a con man posing as an investment adviser." In a matter of days, she says, all of their financial accounts were drained dry. The family lost their house, and just about everything else, except each other.

So now, 20 years after "The Deep End of the Ocean," she has written another book "about somebody recovering from devastating loss," she says, referring to her latest novel, "Two if by Sea." "Iím not comparing losing money to losing family, but the rug was pulled out from under us. It will take a long time to right this ship."

Mitchard and her husband have nine kids, some by birth and some by adoption, ranging in age from 10 to 31. Even though their lives have been dramatically altered by the financial disaster, she says, not once have the children pointed a finger of blame at their parents.

Mitchard works as a young adult book editor at Merit Press and teaches in the masterís of fine arts program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She earned her own MFA in creative writing just a few years ago.

"That was the only creative writing class Iíve ever taken," she says. "If I know how to be a good writer itís because I went to the ĎUniversity of Good Books.í When my older kids were younger, I would read to them, but I would only read to them from books that I like. I was reading from a very old book, ĎNational Velvet,í and my son Dan said, ĎMom, this lady really copied your writing a lot.í"

Now Mitchard tells her students not to worry about writing in the style of authors they admire: "Itís not really plagiarism, itís your own voice, because you are attracted to them for a reason. I believe you find your own voice as a writer by emulating the people you admire, and thatís very healthy."

And Mitchard still has her ambitions. "One is to have a bathtub, because our house only has showers," she says. "The other is to have one day in which Iím bored and think what shall I do, because Iíve never, ever been bored ó there hasnít been one day that I can say I wasnít doing something important." m

'Moral Thriller' sets scenes on a Wisconsin Farm

Author Jacquelyn Mitchard describes her new novel, "Two if by Sea," as a "moral thriller."

"That sounds kind of unusual, and I realize that, but itís a thriller about morality," she says. "Thereís a great deal of mayhem in this book."

The story is about a retired American police officer, Frank Mercy, who loses his wife and her family in the Christmas Eve tsunami in Brisbane, Australia. In the same catastrophe, Mercy rescues a little boy named Ian from a car that submerges. When Mercy brings the orphaned Ian back with him to the Wisconsin horse farm where he grew up, he realizes that the child has a strange power to make people do his will.

"And what Ian wants, because heís not quite 4 years old, is for people to do good," Mitchard says. But the bad guys in the story are "very, very bad," she notes, and are controlling Ian so they can use his power for their own gain. Mercy finds himself protecting the boy and becoming his avenger.

"Itís set against an international landscape and all of those places that Frank has tried to find home," Mitchard says. "He comes to understand what we all come to understand ó that home is other people."

"Two if by Sea" by Jacquelyn Mitchard is published by Simon & Schuster.

ó Nan Bialek


This story ran in the August 2016  issue of: