Conversation with Jamie McGillen
I don’t know about you, but if I were asked to list more than five young adult historical fiction books, I’d be hard pressed to answer. Of course, there is The Book Thief and Ruth Sepetys’ novels. The Downstairs Girl was published last year with great anticipation and Dread Nation still fills my bookstagram feed two years later…but after that, what else can I list? Jamie McGillen’s novel, In Sight of the Mountain, is an engaging, well-researched, and lovable solution to this dilemma. Set in Seattle in the 19th century, the novel follows Anna Gallagher as she strives to uncover a forgotten riddle, discern the feelings in her heart for her brother’s mysterious friend, and become the first woman to scale Mount Rainer. My full review can be found here, and I can confidently say that if you love adventure, a touch of romance, immersive world-building, stories that build empathy, and strong female characters, this is the story for you.
It was my pleasure to speak with Jamie a couple of weeks ago. From the moment that we began messaging, I knew that she was someone I wanted to be friends with. A successful, self-published author who is also an educator and also a military wife and also a mother to two small children, Jamie wears a lot of hats. She is an adventurer, a blogger, a researcher, a giver of advice, a great listener, and a wonderfully kind and encouraging woman. Over the course of our interview, we discussed her travels, which famous singer Anna’s love interest most resembles, and valuable advice that all aspiring writers need to hear.
If you had to describe yourself as an ice cream flavor, what would it be, and why?
Jamie believes that she would be a chocolate sundae with chocolate syrup, chocolate sprinkles, and brownies on top. A self-described all-or-nothing person with an over-the-top personality, Jamie’s choice seems to embody her sweet, welcoming, and compassionate nature perfectly. Plus, it can’t hurt that chocolate is her favorite flavor.
Your husband serves in the Army. Tell me a little about this aspect of your life.
Jamie confesses that the idea of marrying into the Army wasn’t attractive, but she made herself get excited for the challenges and obstacles that she would encounter. She and her husband initially lived in Oklahoma while he completed a class. They were then sent to Hawaii where Jamie began to share her adventures on her blog. She wanted to create a way to connect with her family and friends while she was away, and she found that writing helped her to come to terms with Army life. Another move found Jamie, her husband, and son living in Germany, which became one of her favorite duty stations. During one of her husband’s block leaves, they travelled to France and were able to see a variety of major tourist attractions: Disneyland Paris, Normandy, Notre Dame, and the Louvre. If you’re interested in reading more about Jamie’s experiences, check out her article in Military Spouse (I found this one to be particularly relatable while my boyfriend is away on his first deployment) and her blog, North of Something.
Tell me about your writing, editing, and publishing process!
While historical fiction has been Jamie’s favorite genre since she was 10 years old, she warns that writing in the genre is a daunting task. She estimates that it takes twice as long to write historical fiction as contemporary fiction because there are so many aspects of daily life and culture that authors are initially unfamiliar with. To educate herself on life in 19th century Seattle, Jamie read a variety accounts of people who lived in the city, visited the Washington State History Museum, and turned to visual resources like A Visual Dictionary of a Pioneer Community. She lives in the shadow of Mount Rainer and has travelled to the beautiful mountain with her children to get a better feel for the landscape.
Jamie describes herself as an absolutely crank it out person, and she wrote the majority of her debut novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Jamie had never heard of the annual challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November, but when her friend asked her to participate, she felt it would be a great way to exercise different writing muscles. Having completed the bulk of her research in the months leading up to the challenge and having already put 30,000 words into the draft in October, Jamie was easily able to complete an 80,000 word first draft at the end of November. Most YA fiction is between 70 and 80 thousand words, so Jamie recommends that authors write their opening chapters before NaNoWriMo if they wish to have a full manuscript by the end of the month.
Jamie says that the revision process took approximately two years, but it could have been at least half a year shorter had she done more research about the editing process. Jamie disclosed that she had to wait five months for her editor to read her manuscript because there was such a long waiting list. Having learned her lesson, Jamie secured an editor well in advance and scheduled her writing and editing to align with a Christmas release for the sequel to In Sight of the Mountain.
Jamie’s historical fact checker from Seattle was immensely helpful because she discovered small details in the manuscript that were not accurate to the period. For example, her editor notified her that chocolate chip cookies were not invented until the 20th century, so Jamie had to change a baking scene to involve muffins instead. With regards to a larger edit, Jamie learned that the copy of Anna Karenina that Anna discovers would not have been translated into English at that point in time. Initially, Anna read and discussed the novel throughout the book, but because she would not have been able to read the Russian text, Jamie had to eliminate those scenes.
After completing her manuscript, Jamie wanted to follow the traditional publishing process. She attended the PNWA conference in Seattle and pitched her novel to a series of agents. Five of the agents liked her pitch and asked her to send her manuscript for consideration. However, Jamie felt that she ultimately submitted her manuscript too early in the editing process. After not hearing back from any of the agents, she spent another year editing her manuscript. Initially, In Sight of the Mountain was intended to be an adult novel, but Jamie made Anna slightly younger and leaned into the coming-of-age themes so that she could pitch to YA agents. During this second round of submissions, Jamie received positive feedback and nearly secured an agent. The woman told Jamie that she had a good story but that she was already pitching another YA historical fiction novel and had not been able to connect the author with an editor in her year of efforts. At this point in time, Jamie felt that self-publishing would be the best route for her because there was not a large demand for historical YA fiction in the traditional market. Jamie says that living in the Pacific Northwest has been incredibly helpful because people love to support local businesses and are interested in stories about their part of the country. Jamie makes the most sales in person or at local stores. If you do purchase her novel online (a link to do so is at the end of this article), Jamie signs each novel and is happy to include gift wrap and a card as requested.
How did you go about researching the Duwamish Tribe?
Jamie was determined to include a diverse set of characters in her novel to accurately and fully represent the population of Seattle in the 19th century. The Duwamish Tribe lacked political recognition and land in the 19th century, and Jamie was amazed to learn that the Tribe is still fighting for recognition. Jamie spoke with the Tribe’s chair, Cecile Hanson, to learn more about the Tribe’s language, culture, and history, and she visited museums to further extend her knowledge.
If your book was turned into a movie or TV show, who would be in your dream cast?
Jamie has spent a lot of time thinking about this question and has the most precise answers of any author that I’ve spoken with. In order to keep track of all of the physical traits of her characters, Jamie has created a poster board and Pinterest boards full of actors and outfits. She says that Levi strongly resembles Chris Martin from Coldplay (although he’s twenty years older than the character) and Anna resembles Alexis Bledel. If you search for the actress in a prairie dress, the resemblance is even stronger. While Jamie has a strong vision of the characters, she also believes that her readers should have their own vision of what they look like.
What advice would you give for new and struggling writers?
As an English professor with an M.A. in English, Jamie has a plethora of advice and wisdom to share. Her belief that people are not born as authors particularly struck me. Writing, like playing an instrument, is something you learn to do, she argued. If, for example, you wanted to learn how to play the violin, you would not believe that you were talentless after only playing for a few days. You would need to spend a great deal of time and effort learning how to play the instrument in order to become successful and skilled. If you played for 5 hours every day for 10 years, Jamie argued, you would probably be skilled enough to play in a symphony. The same mentality should be applied to writing. If you practice and practice and practice some more, your skills will improve. As an educator, Jamie has noticed that Gen Z writers are particularly discouraged and feel defeated. Because they grew up texting, their writing often has poor grammar or a lack of capitalization. Similarly, ESL students often feel defeated because their writing is considered poor for not following the rules of grammar. However, Jamie believes that grammar can be revised in the editing process and that it is more important to be a strong storyteller with an interesting and engaging idea. She does not want young writers, especially ESL students, to give up on sharing their stories. Commas can be added, words can be capitalized, and paragraphs can be reorganized. After all, she spent 2 years editing and editing and editing her book. She trusted others to help her fix her mistakes. More than anything, Jamie believes in a growth mentality.
If you are interested in purchasing a signed copy of In Sight of the Mountain, paperback books may be purchased here. This link to Jamie’s website includes links to her published poetry and essays, her blog, all of her social media, her book trailer, and lots of reviews. Lastly, you can follow her on Instagram here.