Friday, September 11, 2009

Meet Jen Cullerton Johnson!

In addition to interviews with authors who have written about Chicago (or used Chicago as a setting for their books), I'm starting a new series which will highlight authors who call Chicago home. (Let's call the new series: "It's Happening In Chicago RIGHT NOW!")

My guest today is Jen Cullerton Johnson -- a writer, educator, and urban environmentalist who lives and works in Chicago. Cullerton's published works include Seeds of Change: The Wangari Maathai Story (Summer, Lee & Low / 2010).

On October 10, Cullerton and fellow Chicago authors Michelle Duster, Cynthea Liu, and Trina Sotira will present a writing seminar titled "Collect, Recollect, Connect!" For more information about the seminar, go to MuseWrite.

For more information about Jen Cullerton Johnson, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Jen: My mother died when I was 9 years old and in many ways ended my childhood. Since then I have always been trying to bring back those memories of her and reconstruct her on the page. After I graduated college and moved to Buenos Aires, I was teaching but while I taught I wrote. Education and writing seemed to intertwine. It was then when I decided I would write to become a better teacher and by being a better teacher, I wrote seriously.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Jen: I published many short stories for literary journals. Most of the stories centered on a character that suffered a loss of some kind—be it physical or emotional. One story called "Set the Spine Straight", published by the Coe Review is about a boy who was born with a birth defect, and after years of being neglected in a State facility, his mother comes to bring him home. Writing that story, I felt like I was working out issues of acceptance and direction.

Currently, I am working on a full-length memoir called Yoshimura’s Ghost: Two Years in Rural Japan. The book is about living and working in Japan as the mother of a young child. It weaves in different threads of culture, education, and personal experiences. I have great hopes for this book, especially since I feel it is useful for a cross-country exchange for teachers, mothers, and writers. You can read a sample chapter published on line called, Name Brand Beauties on Sale: Teenage Compensated Dating in Rural Japan.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Jen: I have many friends who are established writers. Their successes inspired me to continue. Yet, my biggest inspiration is my grandmother. She is my best reader. At 73 she became an actress and went on stage. She also has a very critical eye. I can’t pass any B.S. through her, so she keeps it real.

Of course there are writers I admire like the late Lynda Hull, Paul Celan, Toni Morrison, and political people, like Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Prize for her work with the environment. But mostly it is my grandmother and a few close friends who keep me motivated.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Jen: It is family lore that my mother’s family, the Cullertons, has been in Chicago politics for over 150 years. True or not, I grew up knowing that civil service was an important and worthy career.

I have worked for Chicago Public Schools and other educational organizations as an educator, grant writer, and curriculum developer. Currently I am a teacher at a network of charter schools in the inner city.

Q: What was easy about writing Seeds of Change? What was difficult?

Jen: Seeds of Change was not difficult to write. I knew I wanted to write a book for children where they could see a real-life person doing good for the environment. I was very lucky that the life of Wangari Maathai was so inspiring. She is an amazing woman, not only for her work with the environment and the Greenbelt Movement, but for her outstanding dedication to women and children.

Also, my editor, Jennifer Fox at Lee & Low, is exceptional, always pushing for the best in text and in the writer. I am grateful that she allowed me to tell Wangari’s story in an honest and engaging way.

Q: How did you come to be a member of the group of Chicago writers at

Jen: Last April, I posted an Off Topic Reading Opportunity. I invited SCBWI members to donate their time and read their books or talk about writing with LEARN Charter School Network, Romano-Butler Campus.

Five wonderful writers agreed to come and share their work with our students. We had a large turn out of 300 students and their families. Most of the children had never met a writer and had no idea how to connect the person to the page. It was incredible the outpourings of connections and dreams made that evening. I am and always will be grateful to Michelle Duster, Mary Jo Reinhart, Cheryl Burton, Cynthea Liu, and Trina Sotira for their generosity.

From that one evening, many good things have happened. Careers have been bolstered. Students have begun to have more interaction with the literary arts. As an educator and a writer, I could not have imagined the impact.

Three of the writers, Michelle, Trina, and Cynthea decided to work together and bring this writing experience to others. We have been very blessed to see such an awesome response. You would not believe how many people want to tell their stories but need a little help getting down a game plan. I think it is all about connection.

Q: The group will conduct a seminar in Chicago on October 10, 2009. Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who are thinking about attending?

Jen: I would suggest watching the Channel 7 television show, Chicagoing. We talked about the seminars and bringing writing back into our lives and our communities. I think anyone who is interested in developing their story be it fiction or nonfiction will find a place at our seminar. Cliché as it sounds, writing is a journey and those we meet along the way help us.

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