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On Inspiration: Interview with Author Joy Jordan-Lake

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

March 5, 2018 By Elisabeth Storrs

Today I welcome Joy Jordan-Lake to Triclinium. She is a very accomplished lady! Joy is the author of the bestselling novel A Tangled Mercy, a dual timeline story set in 1822 and 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, and six other books, including Blue Hole Back Home,

winner of the 2009 Christy Award for Best First Novel.

Chosen by both Amarillo College and Baylor University as the Common Book in 2014

and 2009, respectively, Blue Hole Back Home has become required reading in a number of

diverse educational settings, and, like A Tangled Mercy, is also a frequent book club

selection. Recently, Joy has ventured into the writing of children’s picture books, and A

Crazy-Much Love, her first book in this genre will be published in September 2019.

Joy’s five other books include a collection of short stories and reflections, an academic

text, and three other nonfiction works. Joy holds a Ph.D. and masters in English and

American Literature, as well as a Masters from a theological seminary. While living in

Cambridge, Massachusetts, she led initiatives targeting low-income and homeless

families. She and her husband have three children and live just south of Nashville, where she writes and, some semesters, teaches as an adjunct professor for Belmont University. When not spending time hiking or hanging out with her kids, she loves reading, traveling and sequestering herself (for writing and more reading) in her attic office with a sweet, needy Golden Retriever and the new addition, a rescued Maltipoo pup.

You can connect with Joy via her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can

buy A Tangled Mercy and Blue Hole Back Home on Amazon.

What or who inspired you to first write?

JOY: I read voraciously as a kid, partly because I was sick a lot, and partly because I was

painfully shy, and partly because I loved being able to enter another world through

books–maybe one where I wasn’t so sickly or shy and instead could be sassy and

confident, sword-wielding and fierce.

Which authors have influenced you?

JOY: As a child, I loved L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott, and then, still early on,

the 19th-century British novelists like Jane Austen and then Charles Dickens and others.

This would all be great–and it certainly helped me expand my vocabulary, except that I

still have a kind of 19th-century rhythm about my writing, so that it feels normal to me

to describe a tree for five pages. You think I’m kidding. This is NOT, I have found, a

good thing. Thank goodness for editors who keep me moving the action along at a more

21st-century pace!

What is the inspiration for your current book?

JOY: A Tangled Mercy is my most recent book to be published. I wrote about its inspiration

fairly extensively in the novel’s Note from the Author, but the short-ish version is that

the historical story of the dual timeline plot originally came from research for my

doctoral dissertation that began–brace yourself–20 years ago. I became so much more

interested in the historical characters–Denmark Vesey, for example, and the Grimké

sisters and a blacksmith named Tom Russell– and then the stories I imagined swirling

around them, I could barely keep slogging away on the dissertation–and it ended up

taking me ridiculously long to finish because I began spending more time on the novel

it inspired.

The present-day storyline was originally purely imagination, based loosely on a

floundering graduate student that I could totally relate to from my own floundering

grad student days. I added the contemporary storyline to the novel about 4 years ago so

that I include some lighter bits, including some humor, and some present-day

perspectives on Charleston, SC, a fascinating city where you always feel haunted by the

past–in both charming and deeply disturbing ways.

And then there was the horrific massacre in Charleston in 2015, quite literally the week

I’d finished completely re-writing and putting what I thought were the finishing

touches on the novel. Since so many of the settings and events at the center of the story

already involved places and people connected with the tragedy, I knew I either had to

shelve the book permanently or go back and incorporate it as part of the story.

My agent and I agreed that I would try, and that if in any way the new version seemed

to smack of trying to profit from someone else’s pain, she would tell me, and we’d

simply scrap the book. My goal has been not just to try and tell a riveting story, but to

honor the people of Charleston who’d shown such extraordinary courage and grace 200

years ago in 1822 and later in 2015. The real lives behind this story are truly

extraordinary, and at the heart of its inspiration.

A portion of the proceeds from A Tangled Mercy go to the Emanuel African Methodist

Episcopal Church, the scene of the 2015 racially motivated shooting, and to the

permanent memorial to the victims being created by the designer of the 9/11 memorial.

Here’s the link to the planned memorial.

Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?

JOY: Courage. Redemption. Forgiveness.

What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?

JOY: I love the 19th-century, but any time-period is potentially fascinating to me once I begin

learning more that I didn’t know. It’s always startling to find issues that the people of

1822 or 1895 (my current work in progress) or 1946 were struggling with that are

struggles again today. In the 1890s for example, part of the political debate was over

white supremacy, and which ethnic groups were most despised, and from which

countries. It’s really chilling to read, and to know we’re still having this debate well

over a century later–only some of the despised countries have changed. The debate,

though, rages on.

What resources do you use to research your book?

JOY: Everything I can find. Libraries, local experts, guided tours, Internet… And if it’s a fun

location, mandatory research trips!

How long did it take to finish the novel?

JOY: I’ve written one of my past books in as little as a few months, but most of them take a

year or several years, depending on how much research and rewriting is involved. This

latest novel was the mother of all rewrites for lots of different reasons, but it was

actually the first book I started more than 20 years ago. In the interim, I published

several other books and taught university classes and had two babies and adopted

one…all while A Tangled Mercy kept not being quite right in the way I was telling the


So, yeah, 20 years is the answer on that, which I hope doesn’t discourage new

writers. Instead of the very depressing 20 year answer, I’d hope aspiring writers could

focus on this: First, you can take heart that you will never fail more times than I did on

any single book. And second, all writers learn we must be enormously tenacious if we

want to write as a career, and that book was the acid test for me. I could just never walk

away from the story for some reason, and finally, thanks to some remarkable very real

people at the heart of the novel, it finally came together and was published last


What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?

JOY: Sometimes use the online Thesaurus. Sometimes get up for another cup of coffee, which seems to work even better.

Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?

JOY: I like to write in my attic office or on my screened porch with my two dogs, one on

either side. But if I’m feeling especially easily distracted, it helps to go to a public place

like a coffee shop or restaurant and write there–preferably a place with no Internet

access for my laptop. It’s worth leaving a big tip in order to have the privilege of

hanging out in a place where there is no laundry waiting to be done.

Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?

JOY: I mostly use Microsoft Word BUT I’ve found that sometimes when I’m terribly stuck or

uninspired or feeling like I’m just grinding out words to reach my day’s page goal,

switching to write long hand can knock me out of my slump. Also, it can be really

helpful if I keep being sucked into social media or answering email to go back to an old-

fashioned form of writing that unhooks me from the creativity-killing dangers of


Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?

JOY: I love to look at photos or daguerreotypes from the era I’m writing about. Right now,

I’m watching lots of documentaries from the Gilded Age and loving seeing the old film

clips and photos. This early photo was taken in 1863, so later than my 1822 storyline,

but it depicts the back of a slave named Gordon who escaped from bondage. The photo

was used in abolitionist circles to depict the horrific beatings of the sale system.

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

JOY: NEVER GIVE UP. And learn from every rejection or critique that comes your way. They

may be wrong in precisely what they are saying about your writing (especially if they

tell you to give up and go back to waiting tables), but there’s usually something you can

take and learn from to improve. And make friends who are also writers, since they will

understand your manias and loose screws in ways no one else ever can entirely, no

matter how much they love you.

Tell us about your next book.

JOY: This next book takes place at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina in 1895/96, a kind of

American “Downton Abbey.” Like A Tangled Mercy, (and like “Downton Abbey,” come

to think of it) this novel involves lots of huge social questions and struggles, as well as

individual character’s searches for a lost family member, another hiding from his past–

and from someone who wants him dead, and others longing for love or power or


Thank you so much for joining me, Joy. And well done for donating proceeds from you book to such a worthy cause.


About the Book

After the sudden death of her troubled mother, struggling Harvard grad student Kate Drayton walks out on her lecture—and her entire New England life. Haunted by unanswered questions and her own uncertain future, she flees to Charleston, South Carolina, the place where her parents met, convinced it holds the key to understanding her fractured family and saving her career in academia. Kate is determined to unearth groundbreaking information on a failed 1822 slave revolt—the subject of her mother’s

own research.

Nearly two centuries earlier, Tom Russell, a gifted blacksmith and slave, grappled with

a terrible choice: arm the uprising spearheaded by members of the fiercely independent

African Methodist Episcopal Church or keep his own neck out of the noose and protect

the woman he loves.

Kate’s attempts to discover what drove her mother’s dangerous obsession with

Charleston’s tumultuous history are derailed by a horrific massacre in the very same

landmark church. In the unimaginable aftermath, Kate discovers a family she never

knew existed as the city unites with a powerful message of hope and forgiveness for the



About the Author

Joy Jordan-Lake is the bestselling author of A Tangled Mercy, the award-winning novel Blue Hole Back Home, and five other books. Jordan-Lake’s first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, received the Christy Award for Best Novel in 2009 and has been chosen as the Common Book for a number of middle schools, public and private high schools, colleges, and universities, including Baylor University and Belmont University’s Honors Program.

Inspired by actual events from Joy Jordan-Lake's teenage years, Blue Hole Back Home explores racial violence and reconciliation in the post-Civil Rights South. Ultimately, the novel is not only a story of the devastating effects of racial hatred and cowardice, but more centrally, a celebration of courage, confrontation, and healing.

Jordan-Lake’s second and most recent novel, A Tangled Mercy, is a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Historical Fiction and Literary Fiction. A Tangled Mercy was selected as the November 2017 book for Once Upon a Book Club Box and was chosen by BookBub as one of the “Top 18 New Historical Fiction Novels to Read With Your Book Club.” Part contemporary mystery, part historical novel,

A Tangled Mercy weaves a tale of racial tension, human brutality, redemption, and hope. The book is dedicated to the people of South Carolina, in particular, those connected with Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose courage, forgiveness, insistence on justice, and unwavering hope have inspired so many others to action and faith for over two hundred years.

Jordan-Lake’s novels are based on or inspired by actual events, which are not always well known but are always significant in terms of cultural impact. They include historical storylines with present-day resonance and ask overarching questions about justice, forgiveness, cultural and individual transformation, revenge, and redemption.

Joy Jordan-Lake grew up in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and received her bachelor’s degree from Furman University and her master’s from a theological seminary. She also holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Tufts University.

Her varied professional experience has included working as a college

professor at various universities, author, journalist, director of a program for homeless families, chaplain at Harvard University, and—the job title that remains her personal favorite: head sailing instructor.

Jordan-Lake currently resides outside of Nashville with her husband and three children.



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