Winner of the SCN 2015-16 May Sarton Award in contemporary fiction for A Drop in the Ocean: A Novel, Jenni Ogden grew up in a country town in New Zealand in a home bursting with books. Sickly as a child, she spent three or four months bedridden every year between the ages of eight to thirteen. As a result, she became an avid reader, and by the time she was twelve, she had read all of Charles Dickens. “I didn’t particularly like his books; I’d just run out of other books.”
Jenni says she grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, but struggled with chemistry and physics, and eventually found psychology to be more interesting. She went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and psychology.
Love came along when she was 23. This was followed by a move to Canberra, Australia, followed by marriage to an ecology lecturer with two children, followed by the birth of their daughter, and finally followed by the adoption of a young boy from Sri Lanka.
“While living in Australia, we went on lots of camping trips and spent summers on islands on the Great Barrier Reef, where I worked as a volunteer turtle tagger.” Jenni uses this experience in writing A Drop in the Ocean. In fact, the book draws a lot from Jenni’s own background. The protagonist, Anna, is a Boston neuroscientist, and the main part of the book is set on an island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
During the early years of her marriage, Jenni earned a post-graduate diploma in social sciences by correspondence, and when the family moved to Auckland, New Zealand — “When our youngest was two and our eldest ten” — she enrolled part-time at Auckland University, where she earned a master’s degree in psychology.
“I loved being a student again, and followed that with a three-year clinical psychology degree, followed by a PhD in clinical neuropsychology, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Auckland Hospital,” says Jenni. “We then all went to the U.S. for a year, where my husband had a research fellowship at Harvard, and I had a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was in the right place at the right time and was privileged to have worked with H.M., the most famous amnesiac in history.” Jenni blogs for “Psychology Today,” and you can read about H.M. here. Back in Australia, Jenni became director of the Postgrad Clinical Psychology program at Auckland University, and her psychology career, and psychologywriting career, blossomed.
“For the next 24 years I immersed myself in my job, and wrote 60 chapters and peer reviewed articles for academic journals, and two books, Fractured Minds: A Case-Study Approach to Clinical Neuropsychology and Trouble In Mind: Stories from a Neuropsychologist’s Casebook. Fractured Minds, first published in 1996 by OUP, New York, with a second edition in 2005, is still a good seller after 22 years, and delivers me a worthwhile royalty check every year. In 2015, I was honored with the Distinguished Career Award by the International Neuropsychological Society.”
During this period, Jenni was also a mother to four children, who now, according to their mom, are “all very independent, very active, warm and intelligent, share our left-leaning values…and the two middle ones have provided us with five grandchildren.”
Jenni says she loved her job as a university teacher, researcher, and supervisor of clinical psychology students, and the nonfiction writing that was always a part of it. But she admits nursing a fantasy “way back then, that one day I would write a novel, and in the acknowledgements of that first edition of Fractured Minds in 1996, I thanked my editor who took a punt on a new author who wanted to write a novel disguised as a textbook. At that point, I was in my late forties, and in truth had no time to write fiction, even though I daydreamed about it. I had been an avid fiction reader since childhood, but usually only managed to read novels in bed at night before falling asleep.”
Eventually, as Jenni rose higher in the academic system and became more locked into administration tasks, she and her husband purchased a holiday home on Great Barrier Island, and began dreaming up ways to live there full time — where Jenni could write fiction. “We went part-time when I was in my mid-fifties, with an agreement that we would retire fully on my 60th birthday… We wanted to enjoy living in such an idyllic place while we still had our good health, and for both of us, simply living by the ocean gave us joy and enormous pleasure. We also planned on many more years to indulge new passions. For me, that was taking my fiction writing seriously,” says Jenni. “It had always seemed to me that many people work long stressful days for most of the year in order to be able to afford two weeks annual holiday on an island like ours. How much better to wake up here every day.”
Reluctant, however, to let her university job and learning go, it wasn’t until late 2010, Jenni says, that she finally focused on fiction writing. “I spent lots of time joining webinars on writing, and querying agents, and book publicity and book publishing models. Then there was all that social networking I discovered writers had to get involved in, and that was another enormous learning curve. But I loved the time when I was actually writing or revising, the only hard part was banging away on the computer while the sun shone outside and the beach was just a two-minute walk away.”
Jenni persisted, however, and completed novel No.1 — and then learned about rejection. A Drop in the Ocean is Jenni’s third novel. She considers the first two unpublished books as her degree in creative writing. “I certainly learned an enormous amount while writing them, so I refuse to see them as wasted time.”
After what, she says, was exhausting research, Jenni decided to publish A Drop in the Ocean with She Writes Press, a partnership press that follows a traditional publishing process. She blogged about the process for Writer’s Digest.
“I had no real idea how much work getting the book buzz out would be, and for months before and after the book comes out, life becomes a round of social networking, writing articles, blog posts, in addition to the proof reading, cover design decisions and all the other things that go into making a fine book. How writers find time during this process to write new novels, I have no idea.”
Now Jenni is thinking ahead to her next “two” novels, which will be in the same narrative voice as A Drop in the Ocean, “because I received glowing feedback about having a strong narrative voice,” she says.
Jenni has completed one of the books, Call My Name Out Loud, with the title taken from a line in the Carol King/James Taylor song “You’ve Got a Friend.” The book is set in Far North Queensland, and is the story of a long-time friendship between two couples. Jenni is currently pitching it for publication.
“While I’m waiting, I am writing my next novel, which is based on the youngest child of one of the couples in Call My Name Out Loud. It involves Kenya and elephants. I have been on safari in various African countries…so this is the inspiration and background for this book.”
Jenni writes from her home on Great Barrier Island, where she has a desk in the guest room. “It has bookcases with my writing books…and two walls are windows that look over a rural landscape of hills with not a single house in sight. I need quiet when I write, no music. I do a lot of my thinking while walking on the beach, which I do at least once a day. I can’t write when I’m traveling or in coffee shops. When we are at our small place in Australia, I write on the kitchen table and that works well. I use Scrivener, and aim for 1,000 good words a day. Every few chapters I compile it for my Kindle and read it on that, highlighting places where I want to revise. Then I go back to my computer and revise. I am a planner, and revise as I go rather than churning out a very rough draft first.”
Jenni says it was “wonderful” to receive the Sarton Award. “I well knew how good the other books in the shortlist were…I am sure any of them could have equally won.”
Shortly after receiving the Sarton award, A Drop in the Ocean won the Gold Nautilus Award for Fiction, Large Publisher. The book also won the gold in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYS) for Best Fiction, Australia and New Zealand, and the Silver in the 2016 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards for Women’s Fiction.
Jenni’s advice for fiction writers, “Find the story you absolutely want to tell and are excited about because you will be living with it for a long time.”