How Sawtell inspired me to write a best-seller

I think I grew up wrong.

Looking through the attic of my existence so far—all 59 years—there are fragments of the life I was supposed to live, had I followed the score. Mixed up with my late success as a novelist, is an earlier life filled with music—lots and lots of music—and an expectation I would follow in the musical footsteps of other family members. My dad, Don Lewis (still living in Woolgoolga) is a multi-talented jazz muso and piano man by night, while playing brass with the NSW Police Band for over thirty years. After studying at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, my Aunty Marg taught classical piano, while my cousin, Michael Lewis and his two boys, Ben and Alexander Lewis, are renowned in opera and musical theatre circles, both here in Australia, the US, and in London’s West End.

How Sawtell inspired me to write a best-seller

As a child, I was an all-dancing, all-singing brat

When not being pushed into impromptu performances by proud parents, I would sing into a mirror with a hairbrush microphone, imagining my bedroom was a Broadway stage. As a teen, with no interest in reading books, I wrote lyrics—poems that when combined with a tune (thanks to my bedroom mirror and trusty hairbrush) were like those angsty country ballads that tell an entire story of heartbreak and betrayal in a single song. (I’m sure you’ve heard the joke: if you play a country song backwards, the guy gets his girl and his job back, finds whatever he’s lost, quits crying, and leaves the bar sober!)

A born storyteller, not a writer

If you were to ask the teachers whose homework I failed to hand in, they’d tell you I was a born storyteller (and my dog a naughty and hungry one). Mum also said I was an exceptionally good fibber. But perhaps my most serious foray into fiction writing was in my thirties, writing media releases in the Government’s ministerial correspondence department. *wink*

Also in my thirties, I tried learning to play piano again, but as I still lacked the required self-discipline, the old upright languished in the living room with daddy longlegs weaving their web around the piano’s soundboard and strings.

I wasn’t born a writer and proudly admit to being late to the literary party to show aspiring writers no one is ever too old to act on their dreams and embrace a second chance. (A premise I enjoy writing about).

My first novel

In my forties we made that sea change. I left the old piano and corporate life behind for a quieter, simpler life. We bought a café in the beachside town of Sawtell (later operating a B&B for dog lovers on our Bonville property) and something about the country air and the small-town sense of community soon had me penning my first novel, House for all Seasons—the story of four estranged schoolfriends forced to spend a season each in their childhood hometown, where they soon learn something about themselves and the secret that ties all four to each other and to the old Dandelion House forever.

How Sawtell inspired me to write a best-seller

#5 top-selling debut novel in 2013

With House for all Seasons awarded #5 top-selling debut novel in 2013, I’d finally found the keyboard for me—and the discipline needed to write 140,000 words. Soon enough, I had a 145,000 words for a second novel, Simmering Season (also set in the same fictional town of Calingarry Crossing with the setting—café and all—inspired by Sawtell’s tree-lined street).

The day before my 50th birthday, Curtis Brown Literary Agency signed me for both manuscripts. I’ve since published four novels with Simon & Schuster, a fifth with a UK publisher, and one under Wild Myrtle Press, an imprint of Pilyara Press—an independent publishing collective.

Jenn J. McLeod - Sawtell-inspired Novels

Life is like a draft manuscript

I often write about embracing second chances because I believe life is like a draft manuscript. We can re-write, correct, write-over and try a different tack. That explains why, at twenty-three, I left my hubby of two years, and a life on Sydney’s northern beaches, to travel outback Australia with a girlfriend. We left with $400 in our pocket, a Ford F100, a tent, a rifle (that neither of us knew how to use), and with no idea the 2004 release of Wolf Creek (the movie) would freak our parents out. Two years later we were home: safe, no wealthier, but wiser and richer in ways that mattered the most—and with a love of the country so strong, we knew we’d one day go back. Twenty years later, following my Dad’s advice, for once in my life, we visited Sawtell in 2003 and found the NSW mid-north had the perfect blend of country and coast I was craving.

Purple and white caravan called Myrtle the Turtle

In August 2014, having sold the café, our house and everything in it, we downsized our lives into a 25 foot, purple and white caravan called Myrtle the Turtle and hit the road again. As Australia’s nomadic novelist I now have six novels, including The Other Side of the Season, for which I dragged a Coffs banana plantation and the Nambucca V-Wall together to create my fictional town of Watercolour Cove.

My latest novel is a return to Calingarry Crossing and Dandelion House, which is why I’m thrilled to be combining its release with a return to the inspiring Sawtell. House of Wishes is a story of three mothers and three generations, and about the choices we make (or are made for us), the secrets we keep, the connections that matter, and the power of a wish.


Writing is a solitary task

Regrettably, I still can’t play the piano which is just as well as I have no idea where I’d fit one in the caravan! I do, however, have a tiny desk where I sit and write big stories about friendship and family with a backdrop to country life. Unlike performing, writing is a solitary task and the audience mostly silent, unless a reader posts a comment or a review online. Knowing your words have hit the right chord with a complete stranger will always be music to my ears.

How Sawtell inspired me to write a best-seller

Every book I write comes from a journey

Storytelling is addictive, green pastures and country roads remain my inspiration, and sharing the joy of reading, writing and publishing dreams coming true is what I love to do as I travel through rural towns and talk at libraries. Every book I write comes from a journey and is a journey for the reader, with characters to make you laugh, maybe cry, but definitely embrace a second chance—and we all deserve at least one of those in our lifetime.

Come and meet me!

Over the months of March, April and May, I will be spilling the beans on fiction reading, writing and publishing with my Behind the Book Cover Tour of the NSW mid and north coast libraries of Coffs Harbour, Yamba, Nambucca, Urunga and Kempsey, and including a country detour to Grafton, Lawrence, and Dorrigo.

For more details on where to meet Jenn, see our What’s On Events page, contact your local library, or visit Jenn’s website.

Behind the Book Cover Tour Dates:

Yamba – March 17, 6.30 pm
Coffs Harbour – March 24, 6.00 pm
Nambucca – May 1, 10 am
Kempsey – May 1, 1.30 pm
Grafton – May 5, 10.30 am
Lawrence – May 5, 2.30 am
Urunga – May 21, 10.30 am
Dorrigo – May 21, 1.30 pm