I do a lot of interviews, but sometimes, an interviewer asks some personal questions that go beyond what I normally talk about.
Conor Bredin interviewed me for his Story of a Storyteller Podcast and we ended up getting deep and meaningful. He also has a lovely Irish accent so you will enjoy it even more! You can listen here, or just search Story of a Storyteller on your favorite podcast app. You can also read the transcript below with pictures and links.
We talk about:
- How my international focus started early
- The religious and historical research as well as experience that inspires my fiction
- How self-help started my journey into writing and publishing
- How an author career can emerge without a plan if you just keep taking action
- Keeping things interesting creatively as you change over time
You can find Conor Bredin at ConorBredin.com
Transcript of Interview with Joanna Penn
Conor: Welcome to Story of a Storyteller. I’m your host, Conor Bredin. This is the show where I find out all about the ins and outs of the lives of storytellers of all kinds.
Today’s guest is the one and only Joanna Penn. Joanna is an indie author and creative entrepreneur. She writes thrillers under the name J.F. Penn, including the Mapwalker trilogy and the ARKANE series, which is on its 11th book, by the way.
Here’s me trying to publish my second and this woman is on her 32nd, so there’s a big jump in our careers. But still, it’s great to get to talk to her. And as if writing that much fiction isn’t enough, she also writes non-fiction books for authors and creatives under the name Joanna Penn.
Plus, you might know her from her long-running podcast, The Creative Penn, where Joanna talks about writing and publishing and marketing, and publishing news, and AI, and blockchain technology, and all sorts of wonderful things, but all through the lens of being a full-time author.
If you’re an author, or even just thinking about becoming one, and after you’ve listened to every single episode of ‘Story of a Storyteller,’ of course, I highly recommend you check out her podcast, ‘The Creative Penn.’ It really is a must-listen.
Joanna and I talk a lot about her growing up, where books were what she had in hand instead of cuddly toys, and how her career-driven mother always encouraged her to do well in school, to the point that Joanna just loves studying, even now, as an adult.
We also talk about writing and podcasting, and how sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, adapt, change, and go for it. Joanna was a great guest, and honestly, it was a podcasting career highlight for me to get her on the show, so I hope my complete and utter fan-boying doesn’t distract too much from this episode, but you’re going to have to put up with it, so, tough.
Hello, Joanna. Thank you so much for coming onto the show. This is a very big deal for me, and I hope a very big deal for a lot of my listeners as well. So, thanks for coming on.
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Conor. I’m excited to be here.
Conor: Good. So, we’ll get stuck right in.
Tell us a little bit about you and growing up; siblings, family, what kind of home you live in.
Joanna: I’m like, what kind of home? This is a really odd question.
Conor: Yeah. When I wrote it, I was like, ‘Ehh, it’s a bit weird,’ but what I mean is was it a house that encouraged creativity and stuff like that, or was there a bit more rules.
Joanna: Not the architecture?!
Conor: No. Well, was it a bungalow or a duplex?
Joanna: My parents divorced when I was quite young, and I grew up mainly with my mum and my brother, and my dad went on to have another family, so I’ve got two brothers, two sisters. I’m the eldest of five, and that’s not quite Irish size, but five is decent…so our meetups now are pretty big. Which I really love.
Growing up with my mum, she was a career woman, very driven, in business, and education. She was a teacher, but went into consulting. [You can listen to an interview with my mum here on writing sweet romance as Penny Appleton in her retirement.]
So, inevitably, I was encouraged from a young age to be an independent woman, to make my own money.
My mum always used to say, ‘You need to be your own knight in shining armor.’ So I had a job as soon as I could. I think I was 13 when I started my first job.
Conor: Ah, same.
Joanna: Exactly. I don’t think kids are allowed to do that anymore. But certainly I was brought up very much to work hard, do well at exams, and I was always a geek. I know you like the word geek. I love studying and stuff like that.
I was encouraged to get educated, learn lots. We were on benefit for a while when my mum was studying, and so, the library was somewhere I would get a lot of my books, so I certainly love libraries. One of the reasons that I publish wide is so that people can get all my books in libraries is because I really believe in that ecosystem.
And then my mum took us to live in Malawi, in Central Africa, when I was eight. And that really had a big impact on me and my brother, because we were living in an African country. And so that really shaped the travel aspect of my life.
Conor: I was going to say, you can really see it started there, especially because you were so young.
Joanna: Exactly. And I think that both me and my brother, and my mum, have now lived all over the world, and have always thought globally, multi-culturally, and amongst me and my siblings, we are married to an incredible array of people from different cultures.
I feel like that’s what has shaped my life really is that upbringing of having a multicultural, multinational family is really important.
Conor: You mentioned the words study and education and all that kind of thing. So, when you’re, especially, a younger kid, like 13 and younger.
Was creativity and the arts encouraged as well? Or was that more, ‘You can do that in your spare time. Get maths right first.’?
Joanna: Definitely not maths, because both my parents failed at math. I had a tutor for maths, and you’ll understand this, you’re a teacher. Not every teacher can connect with every child. People think differently. I could not understand maths at school, but my mum, again, at the time, she didn’t have a lot of money, but she was like, ‘You’re a clever girl. You just need someone to teach you the right way.’
I think this is really important. And we know a lot more now but this was back in the ’80s. It wasn’t so acceptable to think a bit differently. So, I was always a more wordy person. But when I had a tutor who helped me with maths, I got it.
I think about this a lot in terms of people saying, ‘Why do I need to put out my book in audio?’ Or, ‘How do you read on an ebook? That’s terrible. I love paper,’ and stuff like that. Or, ‘Why do you have a course,’ or a podcast?
And it’s like, well, people are different, and people learn in different ways. So, yeah, I think that was really important. My dad was always an artist, but because my mum was quite focused on us making money, I did do artistic things, and I’ve always been a reader. But it was never something that was encouraged as a career choice. It was definitely not something that was on the pathway.
Conor: I don’t think anybody encourages people to be a writer as a career, because it’s so hard to make a living as a writer.
Joanna: Well, not just that, even, again, coming back to teachers. Because you are one, I can’t help mentioning it.
Conor: It’s okay.
Joanna: My English teacher at school, one of my first stories that I wrote and submitted at school, so, I probably would have been 12, was a short story about a nightmare that I had. It was actually about my parents and my siblings and having to make a choice, but it was quite violent.
My teacher said, ‘This isn’t the type of story you should be writing.’ Like, ‘You should be writing literature, like the stuff we study.‘ And that did have an impact on me because it took me, I think, what, 25 years to actually write something with dark themes.
Conor: Then, from the other side, from the teacher’s side, there has been times where students of mine have written a quite dark or violent or whatever story, and there is this, ‘Oh, what are they seeing? What do they think?’ Or, ‘What are they doing?’
Now I’d never discourage them and say you shouldn’t be writing this kind of thing. But I’d always slip a photocopy of it to a parent and be like, ‘Just so you know.’ It can be quite jarring when a young kid writes something dark.
Joanna: Absolutely. I just think it’s interesting to think that our teachers have a big impact on us. And that what I like now is that it does seem much more acceptable to write different things, like all the kids who like the R. L. Stine ‘Goosebumps’ stuff. And most of us who love Stephen King found him in teenage darkness.
Conor: Definitely. You mentioned libraries, and how much of an effect they had on you.
Were you always a big reader? Or was it something that came gradually? Or was it just you were always into reading and books and stories?
Joanna: I was always a reader, and my mum said, when I used to come into her bedroom in the middle of the night, when I was even, like, four years old, I wouldn’t have teddys. I would have books with me. I’d crawl into bed holding books, because they were my favorite things.
And all the pictures, back, again, back in the ’80s, pictures of children are very rare. There’s the occasional photo, because most of the photos were terrible. All the photos my mum has of me are me holding books, which is hilarious, because some of them are so inappropriate. Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was about nine. But I’ve always loved reading, and, I mean, still, I read, like, all the time.
Conor: You’re a very voracious reader, because I’ve heard you talk about, like, ‘Oh, and I read these two, three books this week.’
I’m very strange as a writer, because I’m a very slow reader. I think it’s because I have so many things going on in my head. I can concentrate on a chapter, or two, or three, and then I’m like, ‘Okay, now to the other hobby.’
You still need to read a lot to be a good writer, I think.
Joanna: I think I also have a certain type of personality where I read very fast, but I’m scanning for information that’s useful and things that are useful to my audience, and so, it’s part of my job now, which I love.
I’m a commentator on publishing, and I’m a self-help addict, and I love my various series. So, I think, and people listening as well, don’t compare yourself to other people. It’s about what’s best for you. And you’re right. As a writer, you do have to read, but the speed of that I don’t think is important.
Conor: Thank you for assuaging my fears of being a slow reader. So, you were definitely, like me, how could you not have been a studious person in school with your mom pushing you and your love of books and everything?
The degrees that you went for were very interesting, because you would think, because of where you are now in your career and everything, that you would have gone for something in writing or publishing, but you didn’t.
Could you tell me a bit about why you chose those particular degrees? Even tell the listeners what they are?
Joanna: Sure. It is funny, because basically, I did a lot of charity work in my teens. When you’re into Amnesty International, and when you’re 16 and stuff. I did a lot of charity work out in the Middle East.
I worked out in, whether you want to call it the West Bank of Israel, Palestine, whatever you would like to call it, the Occupied Territories, I worked there several times, and so I actually got into Oxford University to do Arabic, because my plan was to become… this was back when Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the UN Secretary General. And I was like, ‘Do you know what? I’m going to be Boutros Boutros-Ghali,’ that was always my goal, and solve Middle Eastern peace. I was very ambitious as a teenager!
The plan was to go to Oxford, do Arabic, join the civil service, and then start working in the Middle East. And it was absolutely classic, because I got to Oxford on day one, and went into the room, and realized that everyone else in the room could already speak Arabic. And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to fail.’
At the time, my mum had left England and was living in America so I couldn’t go home. I went to my college and said, ‘What else do you have? I don’t want to leave. Do you have anything else that I could do?’ At the time, I was a Christian, and I also had an A level in classics, and I could read and write Ancient Greek.
Conor: Oh, really?
Joanna: Yes, again, one of those really random things. I did ancient Greek at GCSE.
Conor: Can you still write and read ancient Greek?
Joanna: I can read it. I can read the alphabet, and I still know some of the words. But basically, they said, ‘Well, look, if you do theology, then you could do the Bible in Greek.’ So I was like, ‘Sounds good.’ So I started doing theology.
And it’s so funny, because I lost my Christian faith soon after, due to many reasons. But I love theology, because it’s lots of study, it’s languages, it’s law, it’s history, it’s religion, it’s philosophy, and I specialized in the psychology of religion.
I actually lost my taste for Middle Eastern peace when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fundamentalist Jew, he was the Prime Minister of Israel, and basically, the Middle Eastern peace process at that point was over. So, I was like, ‘Okay, this is a new direction.’
So I did a degree in theology, because basically, that’s what was available. But it turned out to be absolutely fascinating. And most of my fiction still brings in a lot of my interest in that. In fact, my second novel, Crypt of Bone, is about why people do things in the name of God. And that was based on my thesis from Oxford, based on the assassination, essentially.
Conor: Okay, that’s really interesting. I’ve read some of the ARKANE books. And I was going to say, you can really see your background and also interest in different world faiths and faith systems, because even the books do branch away from Christianity, like, there are polytheistic religions in there and everything. So it’s not just Christianity.
Joanna: My main character, Morgan Sierra, was brought up in Israel. She’s not Jewish. Her father was Jewish. But my husband’s Jewish, and obviously, I’ve been out to Israel 16 times. I worked out there a lot with both Jews and Palestinians, Israelis and Palestinians, and Christians, and all of the rest, and I love it.
I think it’s all fascinating, and whatever people believe, what’s interesting is most people believe something. You write supernatural thrillers too, there’s something there that we are attracted to, whatever name you want to call it, basically. So, even though I’m not Christian, or a Jew, or any religion, I’m spiritual. Let’s call it that.
Conor: Funny enough for me, personally, I was brought up in a Christian house and a Catholic house, and I was very, very religious. And at one point, as a young kid, I even was like, ‘Oh I’d love to be a priest.’ I really wanted to be a priest.
There was two big things I discovered that really changed. One was that a priest isn’t allowed to be married or have kids. I was like, ‘Oh, no. That doesn’t sound good.’ And then, I can’t remember what it was, but there was one little thing I read somewhere that wasn’t allowed, because of something said in the Bible. And that just flipped a switch, and I was like…
Joanna: That was it.
Conor: …’No, I’m full on atheist now. It’s all nonsense.’ I think you’ll find this interesting. I teach in a school in Ireland that’s called an ‘Educate Together’ school. So, instead of being a Catholic school or a Protestant school, or a school of no faith, we’re a school of all faiths. So, we’ll celebrate Diwali, and then we’ll celebrate Christmas, and then we’ll celebrate Ramadan.
Joanna: Oh, wow. Your school sounds fun. You celebrate everything.
Conor: We literally do everything. Like, it’s non-stop celebrations. COVID put a cap on that, but other than that, it’s non-stop. But it’s really interesting, because I can openly talk to the kids about being an atheist and not believing in anything, and they treat that with the same level of respect as they would people of their own religion, people of different religions.
It’s all about respect, no matter what you do or don’t believe in.
Joanna: Definitely. What is our fiction if it’s not asking questions about the deep and meaningful stuff? What I like about it is every single one of my books, I’m basically questioning the same thing, about what is God? Does God exist, with a big G or a little g, whatever you want to say, and that’s what’s interesting. And hey, we’re never going to know.
Conor: No. Seeing as I just mentioned kids there and everything, when you were a kid, was there any one book that, like, it’s a very hard question to answer, but what’s your favorite book as a child? But is there any book, maybe not so much favorite, but a book that really stuck with you, and that really, I don’t know, stayed with you as an adult?
What was your favorite book as a child?
Joanna: I really liked what used to be books aimed at boys. The Hardy Boys I liked far more than Nancy Drew. And one of the books I read early, again, this is libraries back in the 80s, King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard, which, I would say, it’s a really old book now, or The Prisoner of Zenda.
I really liked those sort of adventure books. I’d say ‘The Hardy Boys,’ I guess, and Rider Haggard kind of took me to Wilbur Smith. And Wilbur Smith, definitely that action/adventure/travel genre, that’s kind of still where I write.
It’s funny, because I was thinking back to that time, and the TV shows and films also, I was really trying to think where were the female role models in the action adventure? There really weren’t any. James Bond, I really love ‘Live and Let Die,’ again, early religious with all the voodoo stuff. And I’ve written a voodoo book. Valley of Dry Bones is a voodoo book. And also, ‘The A-Team.’ Like, I loved ‘The A-Team.’ And, again, all guys.
I love explosion stuff. I would always love when they put all the stuff in and then blow up a truck or whatever. They should redo ‘The A-Team’ with more of a mixed cast.
And it’s funny, because I didn’t think at the time ‘Oh, there’s no girls. Why are there no girls?’ But now I find myself writing in a genre that still is very male-dominated. And what I love is writing a female driven action and adventure thriller, with lots of guys in and lots of people in, but I just think that shaped me early.
What was interesting is when I started writing, it was like, oh, I suddenly realized that perhaps these were missing. And what we had as girls was like ‘Malory Towers,’ that sort of boarding school stuff. And I’m like, ‘No way.’
Conor: They’re making a comeback at the minute, actually.
Joanna: Oh, really?
Conor: Yeah. Surprise, surprise. I’m in charge of the library in my school.
Joanna: Oh, right.
Conor: And they’re re-releasing them with new kind of more up-to-date covers. But what’s really interesting is, I don’t know who the author is, but they’re actually getting somebody to continue the series on.
Joanna: Can’t they re-release ‘The Hardy Boys’ with a mixed cast?
Conor: Yeah. And just alter a couple of things. Like, it can’t be very hard to just change one character’s name and pronoun, and boom, now you have a more gender-balanced thing.
Joanna: Gender-balanced thing. The Hardy People?
Conor: ‘The Hardy Peeps.’ There’s actually a Irish comedy series called the ‘Hardy Bucks.’ So, every time someone starts talking about, ‘Oh, there’s this series, The Hardy…’ in my head, I’m like ‘Bucks?’ No, no.
Conor: So, your first book that you wrote, let’s start talking about you as a writer, was very telling, I think, in where your mindset was at the time.
Could you tell us a bit about why you wrote your first non-fiction book?
Joanna: I was just miserable in my job. So the first book was called, How to Enjoy Your Job or Find a New One, which I later rewrote, as called, Career Change, which is a much better title.
I was miserable. I’d been an IT consultant for years. Out of Oxford, you tend to get recruited into the consulting firms and paid well, and it was all marvelous, but my life was quite empty. I’d got to the point of having a house and a mortgage and investments and stuff, and I was like, ‘I’m so miserable. This can’t be life.’
I was in my early 30s and didn’t really know. So then I was like, ‘Well, you know, I love reading self-help. I love Tony Robbins. I’m going to write myself a self-help book.’ I did loads of study and I wrote this book.
And then once I’d written it, I was like, ‘Right, I’m going to find a publisher. I’m going to change the world.’ And yeah, that didn’t happen. But in writing that book, I learned how to write a book.
Joanna: And this was 2006 to 2008, which was when eBooks, global publishing, print on demand started to happen. As a businesswoman, I was like, ‘I could just put this out myself.’ That’s kind of what started my career in writing books and publishing.
I was living in Australia. And what I discovered about publishing was that it was going to take a couple of years before the book could even be on the shelf, even if I got an agent and a publisher, and I just was not going to wait that long. So, that’s why I made that decision.
It’s funny, because it didn’t turn out the way I expected at all. But I think that’s the message for people, which is just go with it.
Don’t obsess too much about what might happen with that first book. Everyone thinks they’re going to become a millionaire with their first book, but you probably won’t.
So, maybe just get that one out your system, and then you can move on to some other things.
Conor: You said one thing I think is very interesting, and a question has just popped up. With self publishing, indie publishing, however you want to call it, you can get a book out there fairly quick. Now, if you’re too quick, it’s probably not going to be a polished book, but you’re in charge of the timeline.
With traditional publishing, it can take a year, two, sometimes even three, depending on the book. With a non-fiction book, do you think there’s a risk that if going the traditional route, that by the time it’s ready to go out that it’s a bit dated, and maybe needs another rewrite?
Joanna: It totally depends on the book and the publisher. There were pandemic books out within a month of WHO saying this is a pandemic. And so, when they want to, they can be very fast.
And if someone’s famous, for example, like Marcus Rashford, the footballer. They had a book out on him within minutes when he hit the news here in the UK, and… I think it’s Marcus Rashford. Lovely footballing guy, anyway.
But this is the thing. It’s more like, yeah sure, if you write a self-help book that’s more evergreen, then that will take some time. What people have got to remember with traditional publishing, it’s like a conveyor belt. You get your slot on the conveyor belt, and where your slot is will depend on lots and lots of things, and there’s lots of other people on the conveyor belt.
Whereas when you’re in charge of your own career, when you’re independent, when you run your own business, you’re the only one on the conveyor belt.
So you can be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to move this up, or move this back, or come up with something else.’
And, again, it’s a personality thing. It’s like we were saying with the reading. I don’t believe there’s one way for everyone or every book.
You have to make your choices, but they need to be educated choices. And that’s why I do some of what I do, because I feel like people need to understand their choices and be empowered. And then, yeah, go ahead. Do what you like, but know what you’re doing.
Conor: I think you said something very revealing about yourself. You’re saying you want people to be educated and empowered. And that’s kind of what you do, really. Half of your business as a full-time author is fiction, but the other half is non-fiction, and that non-fiction is for your fellow authors, for the most part. Was that a conscious decision?
Did you go into non-fiction for authors because you wanted to help, or was it more because you wrote one non-fiction book for authors and it worked, so you did another one?
Joanna: To be honest, I’ve literally just written and podcasted and blogged as I’ve gone along and learned things.
I started TheCreativePenn.com because I got ripped off in that first year, in 2008, by one of these compilation scams, where they charge you $5,000 to put one chapter in a compilation book with some big name, and you think, ‘Oh, that will kick me off into the world.’
These scams are still around, all the time, but I didn’t know any better. And I also paid to print 2000 books, and thought I could sell them, and, again, I didn’t. And then I discovered print on demand.
I did things like press releases and got on TV, and didn’t sell any books. And so, I was like, ‘I’m learning all these things. Why is someone else not telling authors about this?’ And they weren’t. This is 2008. There was barely anyone talking about being an indie author back then. So, I was like, ‘I’m just going to start sharing this stuff.’
I also had no author friends. I was very lonely, and so, I started a podcast in 2009, so I could talk to people. And it still works. It still works as a way to talk to people, right? Because if you had just emailed me and said, ‘Hey, can you just reply to these questions by text?’ I would have said, ‘No, thank you.’
But a chat after, in my hour of drinking G&T before dinner, is fine with me.
I didn’t start with some grand plan to be where I am a decade later, but as you take steps forward, things emerge.
Also, nothing really happened for a couple of years, but what happened around 2014, 2015, self-publishing went mainstream. Before then, it was very much not. It was considered to be a terrible thing. And then it went mainstream. And then the traffic on my website just jumped really high, and it started to become more of a business.
But all I really do is write books as I learn things and want to share them.
So, I wrote a really big book on Audio for Authors: Audiobooks, Podcasting, and Voice Technologies. And to be honest, that book doesn’t sell loads, because it’s a niche within a niche.
Conor: Yeah, it really is.
Joanna: It’s a super, super small niche. But everything I’ve learned over a decade of doing audio is in that book. It was my brother actually, one of my brothers, started a podcast. He literally messaged me on WhatsApp. ‘Can you tell me how to do a podcast?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. If only I had a book.’ And so, I wrote that book. So, he got about 30,000 words in the end. The whole book is about 70,000 words. It’s a big book, that one.
And then he stopped doing his podcast, anyway. But hopefully, other people will find it useful. I just tend to write what I’m interested in and what might be useful.
Conor: Can I ask a cheeky question? Are you the overachiever of the family? Because he sends you a WhatsApp and you send him back a book.
Joanna: It was about six months later!
I think we all have different strengths. They say in birth order, and all these types of things, I was the more academic one at the time, but now, the brother I mainly grew up with has more degrees than me. But he’s also a capoeira master and he’s a photographer so, he’s a super arty, physical type.
That’s the other thing. We all find our niche. You’re finding your niche with your podcast. I have a niche with my podcasts. I have two now. I have Books and Travel as well.
It’s the same with writing books or whatever you do. You have to find a niche that is not completely saturated, and put your own voice out there and see what happens.
Conor: It can be really hard, though, to do that, because I think a lot of people like myself, that are trying to get into this indie authorship and podcasting content creation, that it’s hard to know how niche to go.
I think the general advice is you can’t go niche enough. Because if you just do a cooking podcast, that’s a bit, okay, everyone has that. But if you have a podcast that’s about cooking for people who don’t know how to cook yet, that’s a bit better. And if you do something that’s cooking for people that don’t know how to cook yet and want something like one recipe per episode, that’s very easy to do. That’s kind of what you want.
Joanna: But I think that’s format. The other thing you have to think about is just who you are as a person.
I’m a Gen X, a White British female, and I have certain things that attract certain people. And what’s lovely about podcasting, you have a lovely voice, and people love listening to Irish accent. They do. People love it. I love it.
Conor: And it’s something Irish people don’t understand why. Like, we hear this all the time. We’re like, ‘But why?’
Joanna: Exactly. But it’s so funny, because I have an Irish friend, and she’s like, ‘I’m not going to do audio.’ I’m sure you get it. Some people will say, ‘I can’t understand your accent.’ I’m sure you will get that occasionally. I don’t get that comment, obviously, because I have quite a polished British accent.
But the thing is, if people want to listen to an Irish male voice, they’re going to come to you. And you’re all the things that make you you are also the important thing. And this is a tip for a podcast, just so you know. People come for you.
Some of them have come here for me, but most of them come for you.
The tip is, basically, that, for podcasting or books, is that people come to spend time with the person who is the main person. So, whether it’s a main person in a character series, in a fiction thing, or in a podcast, it’s the host. So you have to inject as much of you into your product as possible.
Talking about Catholics. I write a lot about religious relics. I love religious relics. Pieces of bone and blood and gold objects, and put in shrines and stuff. I love all that.
Right now, I’m writing Tomb of Relics. So if you like religious relics and action-adventure, then you like my books. Again, it’s a tiny subset, but it’s very me. I think that’s important.
I don’t think it’s so much that it’s like, gluten-free cooking show for kids, or whatever. I think you can have a cooking show, but with some emphasis. One of the things I’ve learned over these years is that you’re going to change.
You are going to change. You won’t want to do the same thing in a decade. And the only way to keep some of your audience is by being you, and just doing your thing, and the audience will stay or they won’t. It’s what you have to do.
Conor: It’s a really, really good point. And I think that’s one thing, because, to speak on your podcasts, I mean, The Creative Penn website is, like, 13, 14 years old, and then the podcast is a bit younger, isn’t it? It’s something like that.
Joanna: 2008, I started The Creative Penn website. In 2009, I started the podcast.
Conor: Okay, so that’s a while.
Joanna: Yeah. Super old.
Conor: And it has changed. I’ve been listening to your show since, like, 2014 or something like that.
Joanna: Thank you.
Conor: It’s a really good show if you want to be an indie author. But, I can hear the differences. Now, you do a futurist segment, and at the start, I was like, why is she doing that? This isn’t making sense, but now it’s one of my more favorite bits of it.
What has it been like having a podcast go for so long?
Joanna: I have thought about giving up so many times. And in fact, the futurist thing, I haven’t talked about this very much, but I actually built a whole new website at Christmas, and I was going to move everything and start a third podcast on that.
Conor: Because you don’t have enough to do!
Joanna: Exactly. That’s what I decided in the end. Because the thing is, I do cover, if you’re someone who’s never written a novel before, you can find stuff on writing a novel or characters or the writing craft. And then I’ve got all the indie publishing and marketing and business stuff.
Now I’ve got this future angle, and I’m talking about AI, and in fact, I’ve got right next to me 15 pages of the next big update I’m going to do. Things like web 3.0, the spatial web, and the metaverse, and all kinds of stuff, and most people don’t want to hear it, to be honest.
My enthusiasm for things is what keeps people like yourself coming back. You would have left years ago if I was saying the same things every week. And if, as a podcaster, the people who’ve left the podcasting space in the author niche are because they got bored.
Joanna: And basically, if you do the same repetitive thing every week, you’re going to get bored. That’s what I’m saying. You have to grow into your creativity, and you just have to trust that sure, the episodes I do on AI, for example, I get about a third of the listenership. But, then I do one on writing great characters, and everyone comes back again.
So you have to keep moving forward in your own creative life and just trust that some people will come. That’s where I am now. I started a Patreon, obviously, around 2014, actually, which was the first time I was going to give it up. Because the time and the money it was taking were a lot. So I was like, ‘Well, I have to monetize this.’
Those are some of the decisions you have to make when you do things for the long term. It’s like, ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll do this for love, but it’s getting really expensive, so I need to cover those costs.’ Also, if I’d have given up podcasting in 2014, 2015, that’s actually when podcasting became a thing.
Joanna: So, this is something I’ve learned about myself, because I’m often very early on things. By the time I’m bored of something, it’s about to go mainstream.
Conor: That’s what you need to start doing. You need to have a ‘I just got bored of this’ segment, because then people will know, ‘Oh, it’s about to go mainstream.’
Joanna: Well, it’s funny, because I’m like, ‘I’m really bored of talking about audiobooks’. After I finished that, and then it’s like, audiobooks are really taking off now, in the pandemic.
But a lot of this stuff, you can’t necessarily plan. I mean, who knows. You just have to trust a lot of your instincts. And some of it will go wrong, obviously. I’ve written lots of books, and some of them just don’t sell at all. But, again, such is life.
Conor: Do you know what your number is? How many books now have your name as an author?
Joanna: This is a really a tough question!
Conor: That’s right, because you’ve three pen names.
Joanna: I helped my mum write some books as Penny Appleton. But I don’t claim those anymore as they are really hers.
Non-fiction is a pain, because you have to redo these editions. I also have several books that I wrote, published, and withdrew.
And so, I think this is one of those questions…this is why if you ask anyone who’s written, like, over 20 books, they will have this answer of, ‘Mmm, well, really…’
Conor: Yeah. And then, like, do you count novellas or not? And do you count something that was in an anthology or not?
Joanna: Exactly. All the short stories and blah, blah, blah.
Conor: We’re nearly out of time already. So, I have these four questions that I ask every guest, because I love the huge difference I get in answers.
My first one is, when this interview is over, we just stop recording and say goodbye, good luck, whatever, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
Joanna: Go make dinner.
Joanna: That’s to do with the time that you’re recording, so it’s not very original.
Conor: No, not at all. But, I’ve recorded those, you know the pain of being someone that podcasts and interviews people from all around the world. There are time zones and scheduling and stuff. So usually, it’s like, ‘I’m going to make breakfast.’ And sometimes, it’s, ‘I’m going to go to bed.’ So, I do get differences. The next one is, what if…and this is a big one, I think, for someone with your kind of career.
What are your goals now as an author going forward?
Joanna: I’m an award-winning entrepreneur, and an award-winning podcaster. I am an award-nominated fiction writer, and I would like to win an award for J.F. Penn, my fiction name. I would like to be an award-winning fiction author. That’s my goal.
And that’s one of those goals that’s very hard to achieve, because you cannot control that. You literally just have to write books, submit them to things, and see what happens.
I have some very specific prizes in mind, so it’s not just a random award. It has to be something good. That’s a goal, but it’s a long career goal, I see that.
Conor: Oh, definitely. Because I think if you start with that, it’s going to be a bad time as you work towards that. Do you have any goals that are not to do with writing and podcasting?
Joanna: I’m very goal-type person. I do a lot of ultra marathons.
I should be a Catholic. I’d be a great Catholic. I’m doing the Camino de Santiago next year, which is a Catholic pilgrimage across northern Spain, which is about 40 days of walking. I’ve thought about doing it for about 30 years.
During the pandemic, I thought, ‘If I died of COVID right now, this would be the one thing that I would be angry with myself that I have not achieved,’ and that is to walk the Camino.
So I will be doing that next year, and I will be writing a book about it.
Conor: Finally, where can everybody find you, if they’re enamored with your fine stuff and want to find you if they don’t already know you? Where is the quickest ways to find you online?
Joanna: Since this is a podcast, you can come over to The Creative Penn Podcast if you want to hear about writing and publishing and all that, and future stuff.
If you like books and travel, come along to my Books and Travel podcast.
Conor: Perfect. My very final question.
What was the last book you read? You probably started it and finished it today.
Joanna: I have just finished one. The North Face of the Heart, by Dolores Redondo, who is a fantastic Basque writer, again, from the north of Spain. And she’s brilliant. This is a series in translation, so I’ve been waiting for this book for years while they’ve been translating it.
So yeah, Dolores Redondo. I love her books. And I think you’d like them. They’re very supernatural. Yeah, check her out. There’s my recommendation.
Conor: Joanna, thank you so much for doing this. It’s been a podcast highlight for me so far, so, this has been great. Thank you.
Joanna: Oh, thanks for having me.
The post Story Of A Storyteller. Joanna Penn Interviewed By Conor Bredin first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn