Monday, July 13, 2009

Janet Peterson Interview

Many years ago I met Janet Peterson. We attended a writers conference in Logan. She was a friend of a friend. By the time we came home from that trip, we'd grown to know each other. However, as life goes I lost touch with Janet, but recently found her on an internet site. Knowing Janet's writing background, I was eager to interview her for my blog.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When our fourth-grade class had to write our life stories, I remember shyly penning that I wanted to write a book. I’m positive I had no idea what that entailed nor that I would not only write one, but seven books. In sixth grade, I was chosen by the principal to write a column representing our school for the Salt Lake Tribune, called “School News and Views.” I thought it was really fun to see my name in print. My senior year of high school I was elected editor of East High School’s newspaper, the Leopard. However, it was many more years until that first book was published. In the meantime, I acquired two degrees in English from BYU, a husband whom I met in an English grammar class, and six children.

You have a wonderful history of co-writing with LaRene Gaunt on some famous books for the LDS audience: Elect Ladies: Presidents of the Relief Society (1990), Keepers of the Flame: Presidents of the Relief Society (1993) and The Children's Friends: Primary Presidents and Their Lives of Service (1996). All the women who served as presidents of those auxiliaries were very devote women. Since this is July and close to a beloved holiday for Latter-day Saints (24th), please share with us a brief story from all three of your books.

Relief Society
Zina D. H. Young served as the third general president of the Relief Society from 1888 to 1901. Prior to this call, Zina was asked by her husband, Brigham Young, to not only become a midwife but also to establish the silk industry in the Territory. She took a course in obstetrics and delivered hundreds of babies, a service for which she was not usually paid. “Aunt Zina,” as she was affectionately called, combined her medical skills and her great faith. A number of baby girls were named Zina after her. Realizing that medical care needed much improvement, she was instrumental in establishing the Deseret Hospital, served on its board of directors for many years, started a nursing school, and for a time headed a school of obstetrics.
Sometimes home remedies were ministered: She recorded in her journal an ointment used for treating “caked breast, strains, lame backs and rheumatism:
“Good sized live Toads 4; put in boiling water—cook very soft; take them out; boil the water down to ½ pint and add 1 lb fresh butter; simmer; add 2 oz. Tincture arnica.”
Though silk worms were “a terror” to Zina, she traveled from Logan to St. George to teach women how to feed silkworms, spin thread, and weave silk. She served as president of the Deseret Silk Association though she was plagued with nightmares of silkworms. Those silk dresses on display in museums are the product of Zina’s devoted efforts.

Young Women
The third president of the Young Women, Ruth May Fox, was the mother of 12 children—that in itself an enormous responsibility. Her amazing energy, quick mind, and devotion to the gospel helped her in all areas. After serving on the general board and as a counselor in the presidency the YLMIA (Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association), President Heber J. Grant called her to be the president. She was 75 years old. When she suggested to the prophet that she was quite old, he told her that age was a quality of mind. At a dinner for the young men’s and young women’s presidencies, she recited a lengthy poem she had just made up. One of Ruth’s co-workers remarked after a lengthy and arduous trip to visit stakes that she often had to rest in bed for a day. “Well, maybe someday I’ll come to that,” responded Ruth, who was 27 years older than her colleague. Released at age 84, Ruth May Fox lived to be 104 years old and realized the promise given her in her patriarchal blessing decades earlier that her last days would be her best days. She credited her experiences (which she said were “far beyond my fondest dreams”) and her youth and vigor to the Lord, who, she said, “has always done better for me than I could have done for myself.”

Many experiences of Adele Cannon Howells prepared her well to serve as the fourth general Primary president. From her husband’s successful movie distribution company in the early days of film, she learned of the far-reaching influence of mass media. Adele was also a writer for several magazines and newspapers. During their world travels, Adele developed a good eye for art and acquired many paintings. Following David’s early death, Adele moved from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City when she was called to the Primary general presidency. Because of her writing talents, she became editor of the Children’s Friend. She adopted the slogan “Good Reading for Children” and initiated pages for children’s art and hands-on activities. As Primary president (1943-1951), she began a radio program, Children’s Friend of the Air, to broadcast uplifting and gospel-oriented programs. Perhaps her most lasting contribution was commissioning Arnold Friberg to paint a series of Book of Mormon illustrations because she felt children would better understand the Book of Mormon if beautiful pictures accompanied some of the stories.

Share with us the process of collaborating with another writer.
LaRene Gaunt and I first met in a writers’ group in the early 1980s and immediately became friends. Then we both were called to serve on the Relief Society Writing Committee, so Relief Society was really on our minds. The day my youngest son started kindergarten LaRene and I were sitting on my front lawn contemplating what I might do with the 3 hours my house would be empty and quiet. (Her children were a bit older.) As we talked about doing a writing project together, we thought we could write a book about the general Relief Society presidents, but were afraid it had already been done. After we found no such book, we submitted a proposal to Deseret Book. They didn’t know us nor our writing but were very interested in a book featuring women leaders in the Church.
LaRene and I had a marvelous experience together, and I don’t think either one of us could have written these books alone. It was great to share our research, edit each other’s writing, discuss our progress, and get excited about our project. We wrote the various chapters separately; we found that it didn’t work for us to try to write a chapter together. When LaRene brought the first copies of Elect Ladies to my home, she had wrapped them in a pink blanket. We really felt that we had given birth—and only two years of labor! Over the next few years we wrote Keepers of the Flame: Presidents of the Young Women and The Children’s Friends: Presidents of the Primary and Their Lives of Service. Because LaRene was simply too busy to do a new version of the Relief Society book, I updated it. Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents was published in 2008.

What inspires and motivates you to write the very most?
Writers write, right? If I didn’t have a project to work on, I would feel out of sync. My inspiration and motivation to write come in a variety of ways: something I’ve read, heard, or through just plain brainstorming. I have also received “those sudden strokes of ideas” that the Prophet Joseph Smith referred to, that I know were messages from heaven about a particular piece to write.

Is there an established writer you admire and emulate in your writing? Do you have a writing mentor?
I admire nonfiction writers who make a historical piece read like a novel. These writers make people and events fascinating and reading their works compelling. Recent favorites are James Swanson (Manhunt), Dava Zobel (Longitude), Diane Ackerman (The Zookeeper’s Wife).
I have been very fortunate to have been mentored by Eleanor Knowles, former senior editor at Deseret Book and by Dr. Neal E. Lambert, my graduate chairman at BYU. They didn’t let me get by with sloppy writing and taught me how to improve both style and substance.

Location and life experience can sprinkle their influence in your writing. Tell us about where you grew up and a little about where you live now - city? Suburb? Country? Farm? If you could live anywhere you want to live, where would that be?
I grew up in Salt Lake City and lived in the same home for my first 18 years. I lived in the Yalecrest area, a lovely neighborhood with tree-lined streets, wonderful neighbors, and a marvelous ward. On the Yalecrest Ward grounds was a monument to the silk industry, which intrigued me as a young girl Little did I know then that I would be writing about the Relief Society’s role in sericulture. I guess it’s not surprising that living in the heart of Zion piqued my interest in Church history.

Bring us into your home and set the scene for us when you are writing. What does it look like? On the couch, laptop, desk? Music? Lighting, handwriting?
Years ago we converted a main floor bedroom into what we call “the computer room.” It is really my computer room because that’s where I write. Every now and then a family member will venture in to use my computer. My husband does most of his computer work at his law office or on his laptop and has an office in another part of the house. When our children were at home, they, of course, did homework and played some games, but the Internet was not an attraction/distraction since our youngest son graduated from high school in 2000 and the Internet was just being introduced. I have a great mountain view out my window, lots of books on the shelves, family photos, and papers here and there.

What are you working on now?
I write a monthly column for and intermittent articles for various magazines. My church calling requires a lot of writing under the byline “Anonymous.” I have served on the Church Correlation Committee for the past nine years; we evaluate the magazines, manuals, special projects, etc.
My current book project is a collection of family history stories going back to the first ancestors who joined the Church on both my husband’s and my side. As we’re both 5th generation Latter-day Saints, I have a large group of people to research and write about. I really enjoy historical research and writing about people, so after writing biographies of the general auxiliary presidents, I’m finally tackling our family. The hardest part for me will be getting the photos inserted! Of course, it will be privately published.

How has being published changed your life?
Publishing has provided me with amazing opportunities and associations with people that have enriched my life immensely. By getting a few articles published in Church magazines years ago, I was invited to interview General Authorities and auxiliary presidents for the “Friend to Friend” column in the Friend magazine, serve on two Church writing committees, publish many more articles in the Ensign, and am now a member of the Correlation Committee. My earlier publications led to writing the auxiliary presidents’ books with LaRene Gaunt.
I’ve also gained confidence in my ability to write, have made a little bit of money, and most of all, found how much I enjoy the process of writing.

Tell us about your website and any other information you would like to share.
Please visit my website There you can learn more about the general Relief Society presidents, see the collective list of publications of LaRene and mine, and also read about the two cookbooks I have compiled: Remedies for the “I Don’t Cook” Syndrome and Family Dinners: Easy Ways to Feed Your Kids and Get Them Talking at the Table.
I have two Powerpoint presentations that I give to Relief Societies and other women’s groups. One is about the general Relief Society presidents (very popular for the March birthday) and the other is “Strengthening the Family at the Dinner Table.” My two cookbooks focus on the importance of families eating dinner together. I can be contacted at to schedule a presentation.

Thanks, Janet!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview. Those sound like neat books. I'll have to look for them:-)



Related Posts with Thumbnails