My ALLi author guest this week is Joanna Penn, who many of you already know as a successful indie author, businesswoman, and podcaster for ALLi. In fact, her name is almost synonymous with the term authorpreneur. So, this podcast will not focus so much on Joanna's current work, but we'll hear more of her own backstory, what motivates her fictional characters, and what motivates her as a writer, self-publisher, and role model for other indie authors.
Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast: Joanna Penn Interview
For self-publishing advice and news, alongside indie author interviews, subscribe to the ALLi podcast:On Inspirational Indie Authors, @howard_lovy interviews @thecreativepenn, who took a winding path to success as an #authorpreneur. #indieauthors Click To Tweet
Find more author advice, tips and tools at our Self-publishing Author Advice Center: https://selfpublishingadvice.org, with a huge archive of nearly 2,000 blog posts, and a handy search box to find key info on the topic you need.
And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast: About the Host Howard Lovy
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast: About the Author Joanna Penn
Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author, as well as writing non-fiction for authors. She is also a professional speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. She spent 13 years as a business IT consultant in large corporations across the globe before becoming a full-time author-entrepreneur in September 2011. For more information about Joanna, visit her website or find her on Twitter @thecreativepenn
If you’re a published indie author who would like to be interviewed by Howard for the Inspirational Indie Authors podcast, you need to be a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Then contact Howard, including your membership number, explaining why you’re an inspirational indie author and what inspires you.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization.
Inspirational Indie Author Podcast: Interview Transcript: Joanna Penn
Howard Lovy: I'm Howard Lovy and you're listening to Inspirational Indie Authors.
Every week, I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors.
My guest this week is Joanna Penn, who many of you already know as a successful indie author, businesswoman and podcaster for ALLi.
In fact, her name is almost synonymous with the term authorpreneur. So, this podcast will not focus so much on Joanna's current work, but we'll hear more about her own backstory, what motivates her fictional characters, and what motivates her as a writer, self-publisher, and role model for other indie authors.
Joanna Penn: Hello, I am Joanna Penn, and I write nonfiction for authors. I also write thrillers and dark fantasy as JF Penn. I have two podcasts, The Creative Penn Podcast for writers, and Books and Travel for everyone who likes these things.
Howard Lovy: The first thing you should know about Joanna is that her energy can rarely be contained into just one endeavor, and that includes tying her down to any single part of the world.
Joanna Penn: I went to school in Bristol, here in the UK, which is quite funny because I now actually live in Bath which, if people don't know, is not very far from Bristol. It's only just down the road but, between going to school there and coming back here, I've worked all over Europe and also then I moved to New Zealand for seven years and Australia for four years, and also worked over in the US and a number of other places. So, it's almost like I have finally, in my forties, come back around to where I sort of was primarily brought up, but I consider myself pretty international.
Howard Lovy: Joanna was always a reader since childhood. But it took a great leap for her to think of herself as a writer
Joanna Penn: I've certainly always been a reader.
So, my mum will tell the story that, when I was a little kid, three, four, five-years-old, I would come into the bedroom at night, and instead of dragging a Teddy along with me, I'd drag my books with me. So, I was always carrying books around and I've always been an avid reader. The early pictures of me as a sort of introvert, bookish child were always with a book in my hand. So, I've definitely been a reader. I used to devour my mom's bookshelf and I used to hang out at the library, and that was where I had my most fun times.
I don't think I ever thought I would be a writer, and partly that's because I put writers on such a pedestal. In my mind, they were these magical creatures and I lived in these other worlds through their words and the thought that I could ever be someone like that, I don't think ever really crossed my mind. And that was really compounded at school. I remember very vividly; I was about 15 and I had written an essay for my English class. I mean, I studied English literature at school, and I'd written this essay and my teacher basically said, this is not the type of thing you should be writing.
And it was an essay about a nightmare I had. And so, you could consider it dark fantasy/horror, which is where I, sort of, ended up writing this darker fiction. And it's so funny that back then, my teacher said, you shouldn't write this kind of thing. And that definitely had an impact on me, which is why I think I'm so passionate about empowering creators now.
I went on to study theology at university and, as part of studying theology, I obviously did a lot of writing and wrote essays. I was at the University of Oxford, so it was pretty much all essay based. And then I went into consulting, and was writing again, sort of, technical writing, doing presentations, business writing.
So, I definitely did not think that I would be a writer. I just used writing that whole time as part of my day job, but also, I've always had journals. I've always written journals. So, there was really a, sort of, realization in my early thirties that I was miserable in my job and, how could I figure out a way to have a life I wanted and still make money.
And it was around the time when Tim Ferriss's Four Hour Workweek came out, and I sort of latched on to this digital world that was starting to emerge and thought, well, maybe this is a way forward. So, it was at that point, I started to research writing nonfiction and wrote my first nonfiction book, which became a career change.
So, it was definitely a mindset shift from believing I would never be a writer to suddenly finding that it was a possibility.
Howard Lovy: At university, Joanna studied theology, which gave her the grounding she needed to create well-rounded characters, to understand the religious or spiritual motivations behind their actions.
Joanna Penn: Ah well, interesting point, I actually got into Oxford to do Arabic because I always wanted to, well, I did actually work out in the Middle East, and I know you're Jewish and my husband's Jewish, and at the time I was actually working in the West Bank with Palestinians, trying to work for peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and that was even before I went to university.
So, I was very involved in that sort of Middle East, sort of, wanting to bring peace to the Middle East. And then I got to Oxford, went into my Arabic class on day one, and pretty much everyone else already spoke Arabic. So, within a couple of weeks I was so behind that I actually went to my university and said, what else do you have? And because I'd done classical Greek, I could read and understand classical Greek, which of course, the new Testament of the Bible you can do in Greek, and I was a Christian at the time when I went to university, I'm no longer a Christian.
So, basically, I wrote an essay on the Gnostic gospels it was at the time, and they let me stay at Oxford and I switched courses to do theology, but as it turned out, it worked out incredibly well because it's a background in history. I'm very interested in religion and I specialized in the psychology of religion, which has underpinned all of my Arkane thrillers.
My main character is a psychologist of religion at the university of Oxford, he joins Arkane. And so, I've really brought in my background since then. And in fact, my second novel, Crypt of Bone, was written about my thesis from Oxford, which was on the psychology of obedience in fundamentalist religion, and was actually, you'll be interested to know, was based on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a fundamentalist Jew, who said, “God told me to do it.” So, I've really brought my sort of theological background into my writing since then.
I certainly find that I want to write about the things I'm interested in, and I'm definitely interested in the psychology behind belief, and the fact is that most people believe in something, you know, it might not be a particular religion's god, but I would say I'm spiritual, not religious. I certainly think there's more than just a physical world, as such, and many people have these kinds of feelings at different points in their life. And it's such a fundamental part of the human experience, what you believe about these things.
So, I definitely choose to bring that into my fiction, but I also tend to base it on the locations around the world that are associated with religion. So again, you know, in Israel, I have had a number of my books set in Jerusalem and various locations, in Israel and also religious sites around the world, you know, including churches and places of religious interest and religious stories and history, that bring just a cultural richness to what I consider interesting.
So, for example, I just walked this 6-day pilgrimage following the route of Canterbury Tales from Southwark in London to Canterbury, to the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. And for me, that's just catnip to writers, you know, it's like these interesting places. So, I definitely think I do it from the perspective of understanding characters and character motivations, but it probably is more, sort of, rooted in my interest in places and people.
So, my latest novel, Tree of Life, is about Portuguese Jews after they left Portugal, when the Inquisition arrived and where they ended up. And, of course, being in America, you'll know that some of them ended up founding New Amsterdam, which became, obviously, New York.
Howard Lovy: But before she embarked on her writing career, Joanna had a few other things to do.
She had a great job as an IT consultant, but she always knew that her path to happiness lay elsewhere.
To find it took a series of stops and starts and experiments with different kinds of businesses.
Joanna Penn: So, I started at Anderson Consulting in 1997, after I left my job and I resigned in the year 2000 to basically go traveling and change my life.
So, I lasted that first time two and a half years, and that was essentially my pattern for the next decade. Between 2000 and 2011, when I finally left that career, I just left over and over again. I knew it was not what I wanted to do with my life. So, I left, I started a scuba diving business in New Zealand. We had property investment in Australia. I started a travel itinerary company at one point. I tried lots and lots of different things and every time I would resign my job, start something, I would get so far into it, the money would run out and I would discover it's not what I wanted to do, and I would go back to the day job. So, essentially it took me a decade to get out of that career. But what I would say is, every time I had a “failure,” because I don't really believe in failure, is that I learned what I didn't want. So, for example, with my scuba diving business, I learned that I did not want to have a scuba diving business.
I didn't want the assets of, you know, the price of fuel, working with other people, the weather. I mean, there were so many things about that business that were just terrible business and lost me loads of money. And also, my first marriage was tied up in that. So, it was something that changed my life for the better, in that I learned what I wanted.
And then with property investment, I learned that, yeah, this can be a good way to make an income, but I do not care. And so, at that point, I really looked at, and this is the question for people to consider, I said to myself, what do I want my life to look like? It's that, again, coming back to Tim Ferriss, the lifestyle design.
And so, I was journaling about this and I sort of wrote down that the things I really love are books and travel. I love reading books and I enjoy writing and I also love traveling. So, I started to think, well, how can I live a life that is around these things? And that's really when I started to write that first book.
And I was always miserable in that job. I always thought it was a waste of my time, you know, it would pay the bills, but it was just pointless. Everything you do gets overwritten a couple of years later. So, I just could not see any point to it. And now I measure my life by what I create. And so, every year I have things that I can hold in my hand, books, and I can say “I made this.”
So, I definitely always felt that I was looking for something else, it just took me a while to get there. And I'd also add that, learning the things I didn't want, helped me shape my author and my writing and publishing career. So, for example, I wrote down, I do not want employees. I do not want a physical location. I want to run a business from my laptop and run it from anywhere, you know, essentially like a digital nomad, but really, not necessarily a nomad, but just able to run my business digitally. And I was writing these things down back in 2008, before the Kindle took off, before eBooks took off, before digital audio, all these things.
So, I knew what I wanted and then the world, luckily for me, shifted and changed in my direction, which was pretty interesting. And I mean, of course now, as we record this in the pandemic year 2020, that business model has shown its benefit. My business has only gone up in the pandemic because it was entirely digital to start with.
Howard Lovy: Joanna does many things now. She writes fiction and nonfiction. She is an author and a businesswoman. I asked her if she ever wishes she could just focus on one thing.
As you can tell, though, that is simply not the way she thinks and works. Joanna is happiest when she has many projects going on at the same time.
Joanna Penn: Well, this is something that I struggle with all the time, and I just keep coming back to the fact that we are allowed to do more than one thing.
I count myself as one of these multi-passionate creators and some days I'm happier being JF Penn and writing my novels, and sometimes those days, I think, why do I do the other stuff? And then, I get an email that says my podcast changed someone's life, you know, and that they learned from The Creative Penn the skills that they needed to leave their job, and that fulfills the part of me that always wanted to be a, sort of, Tony Robbins self-help guru, and yet not, you know, Tony Robbins in his ideal situation of how many people he's helped over the decades, I could obviously never be that personality type.
So, having both satisfies the need to help other people, and having my fiction side satisfies my desire to go deep inside, and also the tax-deductible travel part which, most of my novels are written from actual travel. So, I do the research and, you know, I love the research process, it's one of my favorite parts of being a writer.
So, I don't think that I could choose at this point. I have thought many times, well, if I just concentrated on one of these things, I would be “more successful,” but I'm just not that type of person and I seem to go from one to another.
So, I just finished Tree of Life, Arkane book 11, this one about the Portuguese Jews, and right now, I'm in edits with Your Author Business Plan, which, of course, is a nonfiction book that people want in order to sort out their business stuff. And I am both, I am an artist, and I am a businesswoman.
And so, I feel that my two author brands actually help me manage that. And that's a good reason to have two author names, two audiences, and now I have two podcasts because I'm Joanna Penn on The Creative Penn Podcast, I'm Joanna Penn here with you and with the Alliance of Independent Authors, and then on Books and Travel, I'm Jo Francis Penn, JF Penn, and I can bring in the other side of my personality.
So, I don't have a multiple personality disorder or anything, but I think that, as creatives who want to create for the long-term, you know, you have to satisfy all these different parts of our muse, as such, as well as the business.
Howard Lovy: Joanna says that although it may be difficult to write in this pandemic year, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that being a successful writer is within the grasp of a wider range of people thanks to the indie publishing revolution.
And despite this rough year, that opportunity continues to expand.
Joanna Penn: I think what's interesting is, I've been doing this now, really since 2006, when I first got involved in the sort of writing world and starting to learn my craft and then learn about the business.
And I still, every single year, I feel like this is the best time to be a writer that has ever been. And in this pandemic year where there have been, and will continue to be, challenges in our personal lives and in the world, the truth is that that will never stop. When the coronavirus is over, there will be something else, that's just life.
But I feel that the direction that we're going in, for authors who want to take control of their writing career, it really is the best time to be an author, especially if you're someone who is curious about technology, about publishing, about opportunities to reach readers. I think if you are that type of person, this is just becoming more and more incredible.
Every time I look at the publishing news and the tech news, I just feel more positive and hopeful about our future. And as we enter the 2020s, this decade may well see a far bigger digital shift than we've seen during the last decade, and yet I feel that we can surf that wave rather than drown in it.
And certainly, being part of the Alliance of Independent Authors, we'll be sharing our thoughts along the way.
If you're a published indie author who would like to be interviewed by Howard for the Inspirational Indie Authors podcast, you need to be a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Then contact Howard, including your membership number, explaining why you're an inspirational indie author and what inspires you.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization.