Good Monday Morning, reader friends!
Today, we’re sharing our interview with Neta Jackson about her book, Penny Wise.
Interview with Neta Jackson about her book, Penny Wise:
Alexis: Penny Wise is book number three in the Windy City Neighbors series. Tell us about this series.
Neta: We were inspired to write this series by our own wonderful multi-cultural neighborhood. It took a little time, but we know all our neighbors on this block, have yard parties together, keep each other’s house keys, pray for each other, pick up the mail or look after pets when someone is out of town. We even had a neighborhood Bible study for whoever wanted to come—believers or not.
The Windy City Neighbors series picks up characters from our previous House of Hope series—Harry Bentley and his wife Estelle—and moves them into a new neighborhood in Chicago. The five books in the series each focus on a different household in the neighborhood and cover one year of time—showing how one family loving their neighbors can help change a block of individual houses into a real neighborhood.
In a different twist from our previous adult novels which we wrote individually, either as Neta Jackson or Dave Jackson, Dave and I decided to write the Windy City Neighbors series together—although that basically meant brainstorming the stories together as “parallel novels,” then each of us chose which household/family we wanted to write about. So I wrote Grounded (Book #1), Dave wrote Derailed (Book #2)—which are a pair. Then I wrote Penny Wise (Book #3) and Dave wrote Pound Foolish (Book #4)—another pair. Then I wrapped up the series with Snowmageddon (Book #5).
Alexis: Why did you write Penny Wise? What is the significance of that title?
Neta: So many of us are busy, busy, busy—jobs, church, kids, school, personal friends, extended family—all good things. But sometimes the “tyranny of the urgent” blinds us to what is really important. We decided to include one story in this series dedicated to a reality most of us face—busyness—and the unintended consequences of not giving our time and attention to the needs of those right around us.
As for Penny Wise, it’s half of an old saying about being “penny wise but pound foolish” (which also created the title for the next novel, Pound Foolish, in this parallel pair). In the case of this story, the “penny” stands for the small things that may seem insignificant but are really important. Michelle Jasper, the POV character, actually claims a promise that God cares about the crises they are facing when she finds a new penny each day.
Alexis: Tell us about the Jasper Family. What role do they play in this book?
Neta: Michelle and Jared Jasper, the middle-class African American family in Penny Wise, are no different from other busy families—until a series of crises affecting their own kids and tough personal choices that test their values make them realize: something’s got to change.
Michelle is a social worker who gets personally involved with her clients. She also volunteers as a counselor for women who’ve had abortions, while hiding her own personal crisis.
Jared is an air traffic controller at O’Hare, the world’s busiest airport—a job with a lot of stress. Their son Destin needs money to pay for basketball summer camp, and the twins, Tavis and Tabitha, are trying to grow up too fast. Around them, their neighbors also have their challenges—like Greg Singer, who has lost his job and is trying to make a go of selling an energy drink. He enlists young Destin as a salesman, with disastrous results, creating anger and tension in the neighborhood . . . and therein lies the tale!
Alexis: Use creative words to paint a picture of the neighborhood where the Jasper Family lives. What makes it special?
Neta: We chose an actual working-class neighborhood in West Rogers Park, one of Chicago’s northernmost neighborhoods, as our prototype. It’s full of typical “Chicago bungalows”—usually one-story brick homes, often with a useable basement—and a few two-flats. Nothing special—except for the large “McMansion” a wealthy playboy built at the dead-end of this particular street. Rogers Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation, and our fictional block is no different.
We populated our “Windy City Neighbors” with white families, African Americans, Hispanic, gay and straight, elderly and young families, single and married, homeschoolers and public school teachers, Orthodox Jews, Christians, and “other.” Therein lies the challenge: how to bring people together to be a real neighborhood?
Alexis: Does the Jasper family believe in God? If so, in what ways does their faith impact their lives when a series of crises strikes their family?
Neta: The Jaspers are a church-going family of faith, very active in their black Baptist church. Maybe too active. The Pastor seems to always be calling on Jared when he needs extra help because, well, he knows Jared will usually say yes. He can be counted on.
Michelle is head of the women’s ministry on top of her other social work and volunteer responsibilities. Their faith is shaken when a series of crises hit their family. (Why, Lord, when we’ve been so faithful to always be at church serving You?) Part of what God teaches them during this time is that it’s okay to say “no” to “church busyness.” More than okay; sometimes critical to the spiritual and physical health of their family.
Alexis: You used the “parallel novels” storytelling technique to tell this story. Why?
Neta: Writing parallel novels is a unique storytelling technique in which two novels, each with their own set of characters, drama, and story arc, nonetheless overlap in time and space as the characters’ lives become intertwined with their neighbors and affect one another. The stories are told from different points of view, so even the overlapping scenes reveal more about the characters and what’s going on.
We developed this idea when Dave “stole” one of the characters from my House of Hope series (Harry Bentley) saying this affable doorman had his own intriguing story—so he wrote Harry Bentley’s Second Chance, overlapping Harry’s story with what I had already written in Where Do I Go? and Who Do I Talk To? After that, I wove details from Harry’s life into the rest of my House of Hope series . . . and so forth.
But with the Windy City Neighbors series, we decided to try writing “parallel novels” from the get-go—that is, we would plan to overlap our stories from the beginning. I have to admit, it was more challenging than we thought!
Alexis: What do you want your readers to remember most about Penny Wise?
Neta: Hopefully many readers can identify with the Jasper family—a solid, loving family who nonetheless get swamped by the busyness of life. Many of us need to re-evaluate what’s important in our relationships and be willing to make sacrifices in order to survive.
Alexis: Thanks for the interview, Neta! Do you have closing comments?
Neta: Although each novel in the Windy City Neighbors series stands alone and is a complete story in itself, the series is richer when all the characters come alive in the other novels as the different households interact and affect each other. And the final novel, Snowmageddon, pulls all the loose ends together in a wonderful climax that will have you laughing and crying and cheering as these neighbors, once so isolated, become a real neighborhood.
*Interview conducted by Alexis A. Goring, contributor
About the Book:
Penny Wise (Book 3 in the Windy City Neighbors series) introduces us to yet another family in “the neighborhood”-the Jaspers, busy with demanding jobs, busy with church, busy volunteering, parents of three active teenagers, juggling sometimes crazy schedules.
All good things. Until all those “good things” feed into a series of crises that affects the whole family. Something’s gotta change!
Penny Wise is a contemporary peek at an urban family wrestling with the spiritual and practical challenges of real life.
The series employs the innovating storytelling technique of “parallel novels,” each with its own drama and story arc, but whose characters’ lives become intertwined with their neighbors and affect one another.
Welcome to Beecham Street-a typical, isolated American neighborhood that is beginning to come out of its shell . . . for better or worse.
About the Author:
Neta Jackson and her husband Dave are an award-winning husband-and-wife writing team, the authors or coauthors of more than 130 books that have sold over 2.5 million copies.
They are best known for Neta’s Yada Yada Prayer Group series and its sequels, as well as their forty-volume Trailblazer series of historical fiction about great Christian heroes for young readers.
Neta and Dave raised two children as well as a foster daughter and are now enjoying all the “grands”!
The Jacksons are thankful for their multi-cultural church and neighborhood in the Chicago area, which provides the characters and setting for their novels.
Follow Neta and her husband Dave Jackson on social media: