Jesi Lea Ryan was born and raised in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque, Iowa. After graduating from Loras College with degrees in Creative Writing and Literature, she relocated to Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to writing, she teaches creative writing workshops to teens through the University of Wisconsin Outreach Program, and has served as a creative writing mentor for the Young Scholars Program through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth. Her short story “Death of a Woman” has been published in the Detroit based literary magazine The Furnace. "Four Thousand Miles" is her first novel.
From the author's Goodreads page.
What inspired you to write Four Thousand Miles?
I had just lost my job in that great wave of corporate downsizing in Spring, 2009. I’d spent twelve years working in insurance and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Luckily, my husband has a stable job and encouraged me to take some time off. I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but never had the time before.
I was in this mindset when I went on a two week trip to England. I was staying in this 500-year-old medieval farm that had been converted into a bed & breakfast. It was located in rural Kent, in the middle of some of the most romantic scenery. While there, I got to thinking about what it would be like to live there, just up and leave my life in the US and stay there forever. I concluded that if a person were to do that, they must be going through some rough things in their regular life. I started then crafting the character of Natalie in my head. I completely destroyed her life—her marriage, her career, her family relationships—and made her spontaneously hop a flight to England.
My other inspiration, besides the setting, came in an unusual place. I had this picture of Gavin, my male lead, in my head, but I wasn’t convinced he was right. So, one day while cruising around on PerezHilton.com I stumbled across this picture of Robert Pattinson. At the time, I didn’t really know who he was, only that he was an actor and that I had never seen any of his movies. But this particular photograph just embodied everything I imagined Gavin to be—smart, shy, sensitive, talented. I began surfing Pattinson out of the net and pulling pictures of him that spoke to me off into a file. My husband made so much fun out of me being a celebrity stalker! Maybe I sort of was, but having that visual Muse really helped me make Gavin real.
Why did you choose England to be Natalie’s refuge?
Besides getting my inspiration from England, it just made a lot of sense to me. For an American who is not well traveled, England is a safe place to go. We speak the same language, we look the same, we share much of the same history. Plus, I had been there, so I had first-hand knowledge of all of the settings used in the story. I suppose I could have just as easily set her down in Beijing, China, but it would have required a lot more research on my part to be authentic. The novel would have lost some of that personal touch.
What message do you hope readers take away from this book?
First, I wrote this book so readers could vicariously escape to a beautiful place and experience a fantasy. I think even the most content of all of us need a little escapism now and then. J Second, I hope to give readers a little courage to change the things in their lives which are holding them back from happiness. Natalie’s life undergoes a complete change from the first page to the last. It took turns she never would have dreamed of before. Sometimes we have to take a risk and allow change to happen.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
The title! I am terrible at coming up with titles. I had the complete manuscript written and my query letter written before I forced myself to title it. I just couldn’t put it off any longer. I bet I tried out and rejected a hundred titles before settling on Four Thousand Miles, which is the exact distance between Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Natalie’s story begins and Pluckly, Kent where she ends up after fleeing her home. (Got to love Google Maps!) I honestly assumed an editor would want to change the title, but mine happened to like it.
What authors have inspired you? What about them do you find inspirational?
I don’t purposely try to emulate anyone in my writing. I think when people do that, they end up losing their natural voice. But I do read a lot—about three books a week. I’m inspired by various writers for many different reasons—Oscar Wilde and Kurt Vonnegut for their wit, Lauren Dane for her sensuality and courage, Richelle Mead and JR Ward for their world building, Stephenie Meyer for her dream-like success, Hemingway for his minimalist style.
What is a random fact readers probably don’t know about you?
I am thirty-four years old and have had Multiple Sclerosis since I was seventeen. Most people wouldn’t know it to look at me. Aside from some fatigue issues, I’ve been symptom-free for the past eight years. I’m not even on the medication anymore. I bring this up because the United States, specifically the Midwest where I live, has the greatest concentration of MS patients in the world. I know there are many, many people like me out there and it can be a scary thing. At my worst, I lost 75% of my eyesight and the only thing I could think about was never being able to read a book again.
While there is no cure for MS, there have been many encouraging advances in the race to find a cure. I know they are experimenting with a new drug right now. I attribute my health to eliminating as much stress in my life as possible—something we all could benefit from.
How did your interest in writing develop?
As long as I can remember, books have been a part of my life. For me, it was a natural progression to go from reading books to writing them. I wrote my first book when I was eight years old, Grump the Skump Who Ate Liver. My school arranged for it to be published and it ended up in dentist offices around the Dubuque area. I don’t know anyone who actually read it. I don’t even have a copy of it anymore!
When I got to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I just took the classes that I thought were interesting. I ended up with degrees in Literature and Creative Writing and a minor in History. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position and didn’t have the confidence to go into writing as a profession right away. Instead, I ended up in insurance. I see losing my insurance job as the best thing that has ever happened to me. It re-kindled my love for writing.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I’m not one of those methodical and organized writers. I don’t outline. I don’t adhere to a strict schedule. I like to write in the middle of my house at the dining room table instead of my quiet office. But it works for me, you know?
I generally start with a character or idea. I am a first-class day dreamer, so I will fantasize about this person or idea in my head for quite awhile. I like to visualize the character from all angles, really getting a sense of them. Then, I follow them on their journey, eavesdropping on their conversations, letting them tell me where they want to go. Once I have a clear picture, I will sit down to my laptop and begin. I am great at beginnings. Endings are more difficult.
How do you feel about the ebook revolution? Where do you think it is taking the world of publishing?
From a business standpoint, e-publishing is a major advancement in the industry. Many publishers, including my own, are releasing books in e-format first, before deciding whether to take a book to print. Doing so has three main benefits; they are able to decrease costs by eliminating print production, they are able to test the market sales for a book before committing to the investment of printing, and they are able to reach a new audience of readers—those who prefer the ease of e-readers like Kindle, Nook, etc.
As an author, I was afraid to publish in ebook format. I didn’t have the first clue on how to market an ebook. It’s not like I could do signings or anything. People can’t just walk into a Barnes & Noble and pick it up off the shelf. I’ve had to do a lot of legwork in order to spread the word about my book.
When ebooks first came out, I thought there was no way anyone was going to make me give up my paper books. (I have two libraries in my house, both jam-packed.) However, last year I discovered free book downloads from Kindle and downloaded some to my laptop. I’ve found that I like the option of reading this way. Ebooks provide an affordable, easily accessible option for people on the go. I still don’t own an e-reader yet, but maybe Santa will bring me one.
Can you tell us about any future novels you have in the works?
I’m currently working on a YA paranormal romance about pixies and faeries and immortality spells. It’s the first time I have written something that is not based in realism, so it’s been a lot of fun. I also have another contemporary romance started. Not sure which I will get to completing first.
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Thank you so much to Jesi Lea Ryan for this thoughtful interview!
Purchase Four Thousand Miles by Jesi Lea Ryan:
When Natalie Spencer loses both her career and marriage in the same morning, the emotional shock sends her on a spontaneous journey to England. There, she is nearly mugged in a Tube station, but an introverted songwriter named Gavin Ashby scares off her attackers. Recognizing Natalie’s fragile state, Gavin offers help and invites her to recuperate from her trauma at his country home.
As she adjusts to her new role and surroundings, Natalie finds healing by helping others. Gavin and his family begin to accept Natalie into their hearts, leading her to a choice…abandon her old life in the States and trust in a new chance at love, or flee once again?
Read an excerpt.