Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Jennifer Basye Sander

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Part of a series of profiles on writing retreats for women.

Jennifer Basye Sander runs two weekend writing retreats for women: Write by the Lake in Lake Tahoe, and Write at the Farm in Washington's Skagit Valley. She also teaches in the MFA program at North West Institute of Literary Arts and is the author of many books including [booklink isbn="9781615641277" title="The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published"]. A former editor for Random House, Jennifer now works from home as an independent book packager and publishing consultant. She has two teenage sons and lives in Granite Bay, California.

Freelance writer Marianne Lonsdale spoke with Jennifer about her writing retreats, working from home, and the book packaging profession over lunch at The Dead Fish restaurant in Crockett, California.

Marianne Lonsdale: What can a writer expect from a weekend retreat at Write by the Lake or Write at the Farm?

Jennifer Basye Sander: Three writers and I arrive late afternoon on a Friday. Each writer has her own room with a desk. We socialize and set weekend goals together while I cook dinner. On Saturday morning, writers usually work alone. We have lunch together and might go for a hike. The schedule is really up to each writer — how much time she wants for writing, exercising, and socializing. Sunday starts with breakfast and then writing until lunch. We head home after lunch. I spend as much one-on-one time as each writer would like critiquing their writing and discussing how they might market their work. These weekends are rewarding for me; I like to fuss over writers.

ML: What kinds of women come to your retreats?

JBS: I get such a variety. The oldest was an eighty-four-year-old woman who had self-published a couple of mystery novels. Her son gave her the retreat as a Mother’s Day gift. The youngest, a high school senior, was sent by her father to work on her college essays. She wrote the essays and also spent time on her real passion: writing song lyrics.

I get working moms and stay-at-home moms, writers with no publishing credits and established authors. Recent attendees include a music teacher, a marriage and family therapist, a doctor, and a sommelier. The eclectic mix of ages, work history, and life experiences are part of the stimulating environment that I strive to provide.

ML: What do women take away from the retreats?

JBS: I expected that women would take away pages of writing and the pleasure of sharing a weekend with others who love writing. That does happen but what I really notice is that the women leave with a stronger image of themselves as writers. For many women, the retreats are the longest stretch of focused writing they’ve ever done, and they get a sense of what being a writer is really like. I want them to also leave with practical advice from me on story structure or how to market their writing, but this sense of being a writer is a wonderful take-away.

ML: In addition to holding retreats, you also work as a book packager and publishing consultant. Can you explain what you do in these jobs?

JBS: I manage book production from idea through creation. Sometimes I have an idea for a book and sometimes a writer or publisher brings an idea to me. If I determine that there’s a market for the idea, I find a writer and a publisher. I get a financial piece of the action for pulling it all together from the initial inspiration to placing the book on a bookstore shelf.

ML: How did you get started in publishing?

JBS: Back in 1983, I wanted to find women-owned businesses in the Sacramento area that might interest me, but there was no easy way to track down these firms so I created the book Sacramento Women’s Yellow Pages and it was a success.

I learned a lot while developing that first book. I later worked in bookstores, became a buyer, and soon became acquisitions editor with Prima Publishing, traveling often to New York to meet with agents and publishers. I went from publicity associate to division head with Prima — then Random House bought us.

ML: How did you become an independent book packager?

JBS: I left Random House after the birth of my second son and didn’t expect to be busy for a while. I was looking forward to some time off. But I had so many projects by the time my youngest was three months old that I hired a nanny and worked at home.

One of my ideas at that time was the publication in 1997 of Christmas Miracles: Magical True Stories of Modern-Day Miracles, which I wrote along with Jamie C. Miller and Laura Lewis. We ended up writing and publishing five “Miracle” books between 1997 and 2000. That book led to my son’s photo, during his first holiday season, being featured on usatoday.com as part of an article on dream jobs for mothers.

ML: You started working at home long before it was common or even available to a lot of mothers. Many moms now wish they had this option. How would you describe the experience?

JBS: You must be totally realistic about what you can accomplish. When mothers think about working at home or are just starting to, they often have this dream that they’ll be able to get so much done — from homeschooling to cooking organic healthy meals from scratch to successful business ventures — and the reality is you need to set small reasonable goals. Working at home provides greater flexibility for sure, but it’s not easy, particularly with small children. As kids get older and are in school, you can take on more.

ML: What advice do you have for writers?

JBS: Writers need to think about what success will feel like. Really think about it. I have known writers, including myself, who find the experience disappointing and bruising. They run into expectations they did not know they had. For example, when I published [booklink isbn="9781592331888" title="The Martini Diet"], I expected a firestorm of discussion because I took on diets and body image in a bold way. The book sold like hotcakes. But the comments I heard over and over again were “cute cover” and “great title.” I was crushed. I spoke recently with a nonfiction writer who has multiple best sellers. He confessed he feels like a failure because the genre he really wants to write in is fiction. He feels his creative spirit is not fulfilled even though he makes a wonderful living as a writer. Writers should really examine what they want and then work towards that vision.


Marianne Lonsdale writes personal essays and short stories, and is slowly cranking out a novel set in 1991 Oakland, California, about a crazy romance. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Literary Mama, Fiction365, Pulse, and has aired on KQED. She’s a cofounder of the group Write On Mamas, and is honored to be an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Marianne lives with her husband, Michael, and son, Nicholas, in Oakland.


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