Meet the Author: Jeannée Sacken
Hello, readers! This month I am excited to share an interview with the lovely Jeannée Sacken: photojournalist, world traveler, and author.. I reviewed Jeannée’s debut novel Behind the Lens in the newsletter last year: “...a fast-paced, engaging story about a photojournalist who returns to Afghanistan a year after a devastating experience with the Taliban. Annie is a compelling character dealing with guilt over her career choice and its impact on her daughter, and PTSD from her experience as a sole survivor of a Taliban attack. Her return to Afghanistan is at the request of one of her oldest friends who has started a school for girls in a relatively safe corner of the country. Of course, not everything goes quite according to plan. The book is intense, but there are threads of hope and humanity. The author’s love for Afghanistan and the Afghan people also came through very clearly through the story, and it added a depth that I really enjoyed.”
The audio version of Behind the Lens will be released in March, and Jeannée’s second novel Double Exposure comes out this fall.
Meet the Author: Jeannée Sacken
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the writing process?
I’ve been writing stories since I was six years old. From the beginning my least favorite part was always “getting started.” I’m a writer who has to start at the beginning and have often struggled to find my way to those first words. Sometimes I’d be blocked on those words for weeks, months. I just couldn’t start farther along and then circle back to the beginning. Over the years, people have suggested various solutions.
“Sit down every day and write.” Nope, that’s not me.
“Try writing with prompts.” That doesn’t work either.
Finally, in the last few years, I’ve made peace with the times I’m not writing. I trust that eventually I’ll get a handle on the story, the characters, and where to begin. And then, I’ll launch into another of my binge sessions, writing for many hours a day. Every day.
My favorite part of writing? When my characters start talking and following me around, even into the shower and to bed. Not that I sleep much when I’m in full writing mode. This is when I know I’ve got the story—or at least a draft of the story—where I want it to be.
Who is someone who has inspired you creatively?
I tell stories with images and words. I write novels and I make photographs. And sometimes I put the two together and write stories about photographers and their work as I did with war photojournalist Annie Hawkins Green in my suspenseful women’s fiction Behind the Lens. (The sequel Double Exposure is due to be released in autumn 2022.) Hence, my inspirations have come from both photography and literature.
The black and white photographs of Graciela Iturbide, Tina Modotti, and Sebastião Salgado meld together a fine aesthetic, political action, and Latin culture. I adore their work and that they use their art not only for art’s sake but also to further causes of social justice. In a master class I took while aboard an expedition ship in the South Atlantic re-creating explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic adventure, wildlife photographer Franz Lanting taught me how to move from shooting film to digital. He also taught me a lot of craft along the way. Composing a shot and framing a scene, panning out for a scenic vista or zooming in for a close-up. These photographic techniques have all influenced my writing which readers have described as visual and cinematic.
In the novels of Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost) and Julia Alvarez (In the Time of Butterflies and Song of Salome), I admire the shifting points of view, shifting temporal moments, and alternating storylines.
What is a location still on your bucket list?
It’s impossible to limit myself to one. I’m currently booked to go to Australia and Tasmania next spring. Next up after that, back to Zimbabwe and South Africa, where I’ve been numerous times, but there’s always something new to discover. This time: big cats and wild dogs. I very much want to go to India to photograph tigers, Ladakh to photograph women and snow leopards, and Bhutan to photograph the festivals. After that . . .
Where do you feel most at home?
I love almost every place I visit. There’s always something that speaks to me, that says “home,” that makes me want to unpack and stay. But the places to which I keep returning include Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and Sabi Sabi in South Africa. Every time I arrive, I feel like I’ve come home. As I said to my driver last time in Zimbabwe: “I even love the dust here.”
“Ah,” he replied, “then you truly belong in this country.”
Even so, the only place I can write is in my studio in Shorewood, Wisconsin. My muse refuses to travel.
What kinds of books do you gravitate toward in your own reading life?
What I read depends on my mood. I love Jane Austen but am also drawn to Khaled Husseini, Pam Jenoff, and the Romantic Thrillers of Suzanne Brockmann. I binge read the historical mystery series of Tasha Alexander and Anna Lee Huber, Deanne Raybourn and Dorothy Sayers.
What is your superpower?
As an author, my readers and other writers tell me I have a deft hand at writing suspense. As a photographer, I think patience is my power. I wait and wait until my subject forgets I’m even there. That’s when I press the shutter button and capture the true essence of the person or the animal emerging.
What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received?
Read. Read everything. And because I can never stop at one piece of advice, the second is: Trust your reader, meaning don’t overwrite; leave enough room for your reader to fill in the blanks and make the necessary connections. Sometimes it’s even good to leave holes and empty space—to “air out” a part of the story. It helps that I embrace ambiguity.
You can find information about Jeannee’s work (including her gorgeous photography) at https://www.jeanneesacken.com