Jennifer Rogers Spinola: From Tokyo to Rural Virginia
Hold on for a wild ride as Shiloh loses all she once prized and is left with the reality of all she once rejected. Readers will be uplifted by Jennifer Rogers Spinola’s debut novel Southern Fried Sushi, in stores October 2011. Ride the rollercoaster of Shiloh Jacobs’s life as her dreams derail, sending her on a downward spiral from the heights of an AP job in Tokyo to penniless in rural Virginia. Trapped in a world so foreign to her sensibilities and surrounded by a quirky group of friends, will she break through her hardened prejudices before she loses those who want to help her? Can she find the key to what changed her estranged mother’s life so powerfully before her death that she became a different woman—and can it help Shiloh, too?
Jennifer Rogers Spinola, Virginia/South Carolina native and graduate of Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, now lives in the capital city of Brasilia, Brazil, with her husband, Athos, and their son, Ethan. Jennifer and Athos met while she was serving as a missionary in Sapporo, Japan. When she's not writing, Jennifer teaches English to ESL students in Brasilia.
Q: How do you think your debut title stands out from all the rest in its genre?
I’d have to say that combining Japan and the American South in one wacky story isn’t something you come across every day! I have no idea where the whole idea came from—but it seemed to embody the craziness of international life, the hilarity of coming from small-town Southern roots, and the mess that happens when you combine them.
I think the things that set “Sushi” apart, aside from its weird Southern/Asian muddle, are the unexpected juxtaposition of humor and tragedy, as well as the characters. I’ve tried to make the characters not only interesting and memorable, but also real: flawed, imperfect, not always beautiful or even physically attractive, and sometimes doggone hard to get along with. These are people who get up on the wrong side of the bed, say the wrong thing, and have too-big ears—but somehow manage to rise to the occasion, most of the time!
Q: Southern Fried Sushi is pretty humorous. Where did you come up with the plot for Southern Fried Sushi?
Again, I have no idea! But I clearly remember walking outside of our Brazilian apartment one morning in early January 2009, notebook in hand, and mentally sorting out bits and pieces of a plot into a cohesive storyline. I’d been praying for a while for God to give me something “new and fresh,” since I couldn’t seem to let go of the same old plots and characters I’d worked with for years. In addition, I’d recently decided to stop getting bogged down with research on complex topics and write about what I know. Nothing exotic, nothing fancy. Just what I’m familiar with and can write about easily. The idea of writing about what I know felt freeing… until I realized I really knew about only two things: 1) Southern life and 2) Japan. When I decided to do something shocking and combine them, that’s when the plot began to flow—as did the references to fried food and belt buckles, all wrapped in Japanese nori -- seaweed paper.
I’m not an outliner at all, but that morning I walked and scratched notes in pen, completing a full outline and rushing back up to the computer to write. The finished story was actually pretty faithful to that original pen-stained outline. I’ve never written an outline like that either—before or since.
Q: What are some of the humorous situations readers will find Shiloh getting into?
If you can imagine an urban Tokyo resident colliding with small-town folks who dress up for Civil War reenactments and get excused absences for hunting, there’s your first whiff of trouble. Shiloh will not only come face-to-face with jarred pig’s feet, grits, and jacked-up pick-up trucks, but eventually—yes—be dragged to a reenactment with dreadful consequences.
In addition to all this, she’ll be adjusting to life in the States after living abroad for years—and trying to stop bowing and driving on the left side of the road.
Q: Shiloh moves from modern Tokyo to rural Virginia and experiences trials and tribulations along the way. What are some lessons you hope readers will take away from the story?
When I started to write the book, I didn’t really think in terms of lessons, but in terms of “heart”—as in, how can we, as readers and writers, keep our hearts open and fixed on God even when our dreams crumble and shatter around us. How can we find the patience to discover His heart in our most desperate situations? The book touches on painful topics like death of a parent, bitterness and forgiveness, miscarriage, lost miracles, and lost opportunities. Many of these (not all) I’ve experienced personally. But through all of it, God is at work—even when we can’t see Him and can barely scrabble together the faith to believe in Him.
I also hope readers will see that each place has its own glories and its own absurdities—and if we look for God’s hand at work wherever we are, we will always find “home.”
Q: Do you see Shiloh appearing in any future projects?
Southern Fried Sushi is the first book in a series of three with the same name, all starring Shiloh as the main character. The second, Like Sweet Potato Pie, and the third, Till Grits Do Us Part, will be released in 2012. And like the first book, they’re loaded to the brim with cultural blunders, redneck tackiness, and Southern surprises. All tossed in the mix with cups of green tea and a sprinkle of cherry blossoms.
Q: What kinds of relationships will we see Shiloh endure in Southern Fried Sushi?
When Shiloh lives in Japan, she has all her personal relationships in order—or so she thinks. Once her situation changes, several of those relationships sour fairly quickly, leaving her on her own to build new friendships. Which is something, in her rush to reach the top in life, she’s always neglected. Many of the people she comes into contact with throughout the book will infuriate her at first, but will push her to put aside her prejudices and become a better person.
Q: How do those relationships change throughout the book?
At first Shiloh can’t see much good in the simple country people she meets in rural Virginia, and she can’t wait to shake the dust off her shoes and head back to Japan. But after seeing their lives up close and noticing more and more of her own faults and emptiness, Shiloh begins to reevaluate her life and what she considers good and desirable. By the end of the book she’s come to love several of the characters strongly—not in a romantic sense, but as close friends and stand-ins for the family members she doesn’t have.
And wonder of wonders—Shiloh manages to even learn a thing or two from her friends and neighbors. All the while “corrupting” their country lives with her fashion sense, green tea, and fish-flavored Japanese snacks.
Q: You mentioned Shiloh will be the main character throughout this series. Will her story ever turn into a romance?
Yes, there will be romance! But don’t expect it to be like a typical romance novel—with a handsome hero who has it all together and sweeps her off her feet. Most of the characters in the “Sushi” books are quirky and “real” to a fault, and her romance—as well as others that develop alongside hers in the series—will usually be between the two people who least expect it. And, as is normal in real life, not without a good helping of conflict.