Jean was born and raised in Pullman, Washington, just eight miles from the Washington/Idaho border. Her mother taught high school and college level English, and was the Pullman High School librarian for many years, and her father was a professor of English at Washington State University. From them she first learned to love books, reading, and writing. In addition, her father had a profound influence on her own teaching philosophy and style.
Jean began college at Fairhaven College in Bellingham, Washington, and received her BA in Liberal Arts from Washington State University in 1979. In 1984, after working at a variety of jobs—from making stained glass windows for local businesses to housekeeping at a nursing home—she received a MA in Rhetoric and the Teaching of Composition from Eastern Washington University.
In the fall of 1984, she accepted a full-time job in the English Department at Santa Rosa Junior College, and moved to northern California. After the first of her three children was born in 1986, she began teaching part-time in order to devote more time to her family and her writing. Since then, the classes she has taught most often have been Creative Writing classes.
Jean is a frequent speaker and instructor at writers’ conferences and workshops. She has taught for the Mediterranean Center for Arts and Sciences in Sicily, for the German Studienshiftung program in northern Italy, and has been Writer in Residence at the College of York St. John in York, England. In 2019, she enjoyed a writing residency at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland, where she worked on finishing her most recent novel, Here in This Next New Now.
In August of 2020, the Walbridge Fire destroyed Jean’s family’s home in the northern California forest that served as inspiration for the setting of Into the Forest and Here in This Next New Now. Currently, she is discovering another kind of inspiration from watching that forest regrow.
Jean has three grown children, a beloved stepdaughter, six granddaughters, the world’s best cat, and several hives of bees. She is always at work on another book.
Questions & Answers
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing seriously since I was in my mid-twenties. Although I always wanted to be a writer, it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I learned how to take my rough drafts and slowly and steadily shape them into something that more nearly satisfied me.
How long does it take to write a book?
Thus far, it’s taken about five to seven years per book. It generally takes me a great many drafts to discover the story I want to tell, and then many more drafts to shape and polish that story.
How much research do you do for your books?
A story doesn’t seem authentic and feel deeply imagined unless its author understands very precisely what it is she’s trying to describe, and that can require a lot of research. But one of the many reasons I love writing fiction is that it allows me to imagine experiences beyond my own. Doing research for a book is a wonderful way to justify learning about obscure corners of the world.
In addition to “book learning” and Web-browsing, I often try to give myself many of the same experiences my characters would have had. For example, I experimented with gathering, processing, and eating acorns while I was writing Into the Forest; I volunteered at a center for homeless women and children while I was working on Windfalls; and I spent many years studying Shakespearean criticism and attending productions of Shakespeare’s plays while I was writing Still Time.
Where do you get your ideas?
My ideas come to me most often as ways of examining the questions that my life offers me at any given time, but I get many more ideas as I’m writing than I do when I’m not writing. That’s one of the many reasons I keep returning to my desk.
Where do your characters come from?
My characters are like imaginary friends who grow more clear—and dear—to me the longer I know them. They are different aspects of myself, of course, and very occasionally they are suggested to me by people I’ve known. But, like many of the characters who people my dreams, almost all of the characters in my stories are really like no one else I’ve ever met.
What other authors have influenced you?
I’m influenced by everything I read. When I read, I’m always trying to see what I can learn about the art and craft of writing. A short list of the writers whose work I love the most are William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Alice Monro, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Marilyn Robinson.
What about teaching?
I love to teach, and always welcome the opportunity that teaching gives me to think very deeply about various aspects of the art and craft of writing. Reading manuscripts takes a lot of time, but it is generally a great pleasure to be able to look at someone else’s work in progress, and I often find that trying to respond helpfully to my students’ drafts helps me to see my own work better. I also enjoy the camaraderie of teaching. Writing is a solitary enterprise, and it’s good to meet with others who are in the same boat.