an interview with Jacquelyn Mitchard, mother of seven

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(photo from author’s website)

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the mother of seven children, as well as an author of numerous best selling books, and she has graciously agreed to take time from her busy schedule promoting her newest book, Cage Of Stars, to answer my questions about being a writer and mother to many children.

As a mother of seven children also, I find you and your work inspiring.

I read that when your first husband died of cancer, well-meaning friends and family urged you to take a “real” job, yet you persisted in writing your first novel, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, (a book which ended up a number one bestseller list and which Oprah chose it for her first book club selection.) How did the experience of being picked by Oprah change your life?

It made it possible for me to attempt to tell stories for a living – a privilege that few writers have, even if has meant some sacrifices, both personal and financial. We have to run a very tight ship and be careful; but we also have given our children some experiences that others don’t get to have, such as going to Europe when I have research there. Other than that, it hasn’t changed me. I don’t think of myself as “famous.” I don’t think of myself as different – just more visible.

How do you find time to write with a house full of children? Do you have a set schedule of writing time set aside daily? What advice do you have for women who have a hard time taking time away from family to follow their passions?

Well, the children are my passion, the primary thing in my life, except for my husband and family. My writing is a great love, but it is the way I make a living. And so, it comes after the children. There are times when I have to sacrifice time with them in order to do that job; but I try to do it during their school hours and at a desk downstairs that is apart from their “stomping ground.” If I really have to buckle down and churn hard at writing, I go to a residence called The Ragdale Foundation in northern Illinois, where I have total privacy and work ten or twelve hours a day. It’s far enough away that I can’t be involved with every minute of their lives; but it’s close enough that I can come home in an emergency, and I have. Believe me, as soon as my back is turned, something invariably goes wrong! Sometimes, I think it’s their way of making me see that they aren’t very fond of my being away.

I think all of us as mothers have had that experience! I have taken to saying to my children before I leave the house, “Don’t get hurt today. It is NOT a good day for going to the ER.” If only they would listen to me.

On your blog you are very candid about missing out on special events with your children since you travel frequently. Do you think it’s harder to be a working mom when you’ve got a lot of children? How do you keep things from getting out of balance?

I definitely think that it’s more difficult now that I have more children. When there were fewer and they were younger, I could easily take them out of a few days of primary school, and take one with me for some of my book-tour events. Now that many of the kids are older; and even the younger ones have such heavy demands at school that I can’t justify doing that anymore. And now that my assistant has a very young child of her own, she can’t travel with me and help out with the kids – except very rarely – so they end up sad and I end up sad and feeling guilty, too. And yet, they do understand that this is necessary for me to support them, and that their dad misses me, too. What’s the saddest thing of all is when I come home and they are just so darned okay! They say they’re glad to see me; but when they cry out at night, it’s for Chris. I guess that’s a tribute to Chris, as a great dad, but it’s made for some tears for me. Of course, I love meeting readers; and I love seeing the effect my book has on people – so it’s a dilemma.

It is such a double edge sword, isn’t it? I never knew before I had children how much mommy guilt I would feel, about things that I logically shouldn’t even feel guilty about. Speaking of children,you also are the writer of several children’s books. Do you have any plans to write more?

I do! Another picture book is coming out next year, and my first young adult novel comes out in January of 2007.

Can you share some of your creative process with us? Do you base characters on real people, or draw from real life experiences for inspiration? Do your children inspire your work?

My children have inspired my work, yes. In fact, my first chapter book for children (‘Starring Prima!’) was written backstage with the help of the children in the cast of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ when I appeared in that with two of my sons, who acted in community theater. And my adult novel last year, ‘The Breakdown Lane,’ was in part inspired by my son, Dan, who appears as the narrator “Gabe” in the book. Many, many of my characters are inspired by people in real life; and many of my books are very loosely inspired by incidents that have happened in real life – by newspaper accounts, by stories people have told me that haunt me. Most of those incidents aren’t at all recognizable.

You travel quite a bit, it seems. You mention Italy as one of your favorite places. I personally have had the desire to travel there and not yet made it. Do you travel with all of your children? Do you have any sage traveling wisdom you could share with us?

Well, the sagest advice I can give is, do it! I think parents are intimidated by the idea of traveling with a large family – so they simply back off. What we’ve done is to try to teach our children manners, consideration for others and to pitch in and be appropriate in other places. It doesn’t always work, of course; but they aren’t spoiled brats who disturb other people. Once when we were on Cape Cod, I heard a waitress pay another waitress to serve our table. And later that server came up to me and apologized. She said, “I really am not used to seeing kids behave that well….” Be prepared. Take lots of books and snack and magnets and go! My son Atticus had taken six plane trips by the time he was five months old!

Tell us about you as a child. Did you have a lot of siblings growing up? Did you always imagine that you would be a mother to a large brood?

I had only one brother, and another who died as a child. Both my brother and I felt there was a shortage of “us.” I did want to have a “larger” family; but I never imagined having one this large! In fact, I wouldn’t have had such a large family if my first husband had lived….but then, so many things would have been different. I don’t mean that they would have been better or worse, but they would have been different!

Your newest novel, CAGE OF STARS, was just released in May 2006, can you tell us a little bit about your book?

It’s the story of a young Mormon girl who witnesses an event of shocking brutality when she is only thirteen. Unlike her parents, she hasn’t the strength of will and faith to eventually turn to forgiveness and peace. She struggles with ideas of revenge, of making the man responsible for her family’s pain suffer the same pain.

Where can we find updates about you and your appearances?

At my website,!

Questions that I subject everyone to, because these are the things that people seem most curious about large families:

1. How many gallons of milk and loaves of bread does your family go through a week? Are you ever caught up on the laundry?

We go through at least ten loaves of bread and seven gallons of milk each week; and no, I do five loads of laundry a day, in a washing machine the size of the Apollo 13; and I will never be caught up, ever. Maybe when I’m 65 years old.

2. How have you changed as a mother from your first to your seventh child?

I know how much more important love is than influence. I know that love has more power than any number of speeches or directions, and setting an example of loving and respecting each other has more power than anything else. Kids are going to turn out who they are going to turn out to be no matter what. A parent can guide and suggest, but not command.

3. What is your favorite snack that you take pains to hide from your children?

I don’t HAVE one! My husband is very protective of his Oreos though!

4. When I am home my favorite thing to do with my children is:

Cook. It’s so home-bringing.

Jacquelyn, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and share a bit of your life with us. I wish you the best of luck with all your new projects.

know someone you think I should interview for an upcoming column, email me at

One Response to “an interview with Jacquelyn Mitchard, mother of seven”

  1. Lazy Cow Says:

    Hurrah, another wonderful blog to read (like I need any more). I’m currently reading Jacquelyn’s book of newspaper columns “The Rest of us”. She only had 4 kids back then. Thanks for this interview.