Author Jan Stites has come a long way in life since honing her journalistic skills as an intern at The Examiner during the mid-1960s. After working for The Examiner for two summers and studying under Ron Clemons, longtime journalism instructor at Truman High School, Jan thought about majoring in journalism at Ole Mizzou. But it was just a thought.
Instead, she heeded her father’s advice: “Don’t get a degree in something that isn’t going to make you employable.”
“So that is when I decided to get a teaching credential,” Jan says, noting she was “sort of wandering” for awhile toward teaching, even though it wasn’t her first love.
So how did Jan arrive at publication of her second novel, “Reading the Sweet Oak?” New York Times Best-selling Author Susan Mallery heralds Jan Stites as “a charming new voice in women’s fiction who writes from the heart about friendship, love, and what it means to find where you belong.”
In a telephone interview from her home in Oakland, California, the 1966 Truman High graduate says she always enjoyed writing poetry, as well as keeping a journal. She even took some writing courses in graduate school. But it wasn’t until she moved to California in 1975 that she started writing seriously.
Her inspiration, she says, was none other than actor Paul Newman. Yes, handsome Paul Newman, who captured her attention in a television program she was watching.
“He was talking about how there wasn’t enough good screenplays, and he was asking people to write some good screenplays,” she recalls. “So I thought, ‘I’ll write screenplays.’”
So for 10 years, she wrote screenplays, but none ever appeared on the silver screen. She also taught screenwriting at San Francisco State University and at the University of California Extension.
What happened next was that Jan decided she really didn’t want to write screenplays anymore. People didn’t read them. So in the early 1990s, she started writing novels. Two of her five books – “Edgewise” and “Reading the Sweet Oak” – have been published. Three earlier books, Jan says, “Will never see the light of day. They were practice novels.”
Though some readers may consider “Reading the Sweet Oak” as mainstream fiction, others may consider it women’s fiction, Jan says, explaining the 361-page novel – published on Sept. 29 – isn’t written just for women, even though the characters are females.
Set on a fictitious river in the Missouri Ozarks, “Reading the Sweet Oak” is the story of five Ozark women who form a romance book club, Jan says, and how reading those books changed their lives.
“It’s a story about modern-day love guided by tales of romance, and it is a story that examines the bonds of friendship and the highs and lows of love in all of its forms,” she says. “...It’s a celebration of love in all of its forms.”
Jan says the soft-cover book was based on the experiences her family experienced while camping along the banks of many beautiful Ozark rivers during the summer.
Noting she always wanted to write a book about the Ozarks someday, Jan says the opportunity came when an Ozark businessman asked her if she would interview and record the stories of older Ozarkians before they passed away.
Accepting the challenge, she interviewed almost two dozen people – mostly women – in the West Plains and Camdenton areas about their experiences in the Ozarks.
One of the things Jan gleaned from her interviews was the large number of women who enjoyed romance novels. And from that revelation sprang the idea of penning the Ozarks novel she always intended to write, and focusing the story on a romance book club involving five women.
In case you’re wondering, Jan says none of her characters are based on the women she interviewed. She made them all up.
Is there a particular part of the book Jan prefers?
“Not really,” she says. “What I like about the book was how much fun it was to be in the heads of five different women. Two are in their 20s, one is in her 40s and two are in their late 70s. So that was fun doing different ages of characters.”
When it comes to dialogue and imagination, Jan believes she excels in those areas as a writer, with dialogue being her biggest strength.
And what would she like readers to take away from her book?: “Love of any sort should be celebrated.”
As an author, Jan’s ambition, she says, is “to write another book that is publishable, speaks to readers and makes people smile for awhile. My books do that, and I like for people reading them to have an emotional experience.”
Jan is currently writing another book centered around four women, a dog and an author.
“I am about a quarter of the way through the first draft,” he says, of the untitled book. “I don’t know what (the title) is going to be.”
• Published by Lake Union Publishing of Seattle, Washington, “Reading the Sweet Oak” can be ordered from many bookstores or purchased through Amazon. Jan’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.