Episode 181: Getting to Know Your Characters — Interview with Joan Dempsey

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Podcast

Hey there word nerds!

Today I am delighted to have award-winning author Joan Dempsey on the show!

Joan’s writing has been published in numerous places including The Adirondack Review and  Alligator Juniper, and she is the author of This is How it Begins.

For this fascinating novel, that is a mix of literary fiction and mystery, she received a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation which took her to Warsaw for a month (no, she doesn’t speak Polish), and to Washington, D.C. for ten days, to study in the archives at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Listen in as we discuss the multiple layers of This is How it Begins, and get some of Joan’s best writing techniques for juggling plot and characters.

In this episode Joan and I discuss:

  • Avoiding the caricature, finding your way into every character’s head.
  • Using omniscient POV in contemporary fiction the right way.
  • Staying neutral, how to keep from steering your readers to any one opinion.
  • Balancing the interplay between characters and plot.
  • Method writing, and other craft techniques from Joan to get to the heart of your story.

Plus, Joan’s #1 tip for writers.

About Joan Dempsey

A New Englander through and through, author Joan Dempsey grew up in New Hampshire, spent twenty-two years in the Boston area, and now lives in New Gloucester, Maine, where she helps serious creative writers master the craft of revision through online courses and free resources.

She works out of a former tool shed and chicken coop—now fondly called, simply, “The Shed”—commuting on foot across her back yard in every season. Her animal companions—Logan and Bea (the dogs) and Maggie and Little Jack Sparrow (the cats)—come in and out at will.

Joan is an ENFP personality type, and has therefore tried her hand at various things over the years. She once tried out for a women’s professional baseball team, rode her bicycle around the North Island of New Zealand, worked in the anti-nuclear movement, studied graphic design … and management … and psychology … and creative writing, and worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Massachusetts SPCA on Beacon Hill in Boston.

Joan was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her work on This is How it Begins, a grant that took her to Warsaw for a month (no, she doesn’t speak Polish), and to Washington, D.C. for ten days, to study in the archives at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Her writing has been published in The Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora and Plenitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio.She was also the winner of the 2017 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Exchange Award.

She is currently working on a new novel, this time featuring Frank Zeilonka, one of the characters in her debut novel This is How it Begins which is available now.

To connect with Joan check out her websites at www.thisishowitbeginsnovel.com and


This is How it Begins

Ludka Zeilonka is an 85-year-old art professor and member of an esteemed political family in Massachusetts. Her only troubles—at least on the surface—are protecting her renowned and delicate Polish contemporary art collection and that she gets cold in museums.

But then Ludka receives a disturbing phone message about a secret she has kept for more than sixty years. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Tommy, is fired along with a handful of other gay teachers across the state for allegedly discriminating against Christian students in the classroom.

The teacher firings are the brainchild of Warren Meck, a deeply religious local radio host and father of three who is hoping to pass a religious freedom bill in Massachusetts. Meck favors achieving his goals through careful planning and legislation, and is concerned when violence erupts. But concern quickly turns to alarm when he realizes the violence may be being incited by those within his inner circle.

As a young Catholic woman in WWII Poland, Ludka joined the Resistance as an artist, her surviving drawings serving as testimony to Nazi crimes. Also, her family sheltered Jews, and her parents died because of it. As Ludka witnesses Tommy navigating the political firestorm that erupts over his job loss, she knows that what she sees doesn’t compare to her childhood. But she also recognizes the danger in dehumanizing a group of people. As the tensions escalate, she’s forced to decide once again to keep quiet or to act.

In this novel about free speech, family and secrets, Dempsey brilliantly depicts both sides without creating caricatures, emphasizing the importance of empathy in public discourse today. This is How it Begins is page-turning, thought provoking, and timely.


If you decide to check out the book, we hope you’ll do so via this Amazon affiliate link, where if you choose to purchase via the link, DIY MFA gets a referral fee at no cost to you. As always, thank you for supporting DIY MFA!

Link to Episode 181

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