KEEP WRITING! You get better at it as you go along. My first and second novels never got published and, with the benefit of hindsight, didn’t deserve to get published. I didn’t have that clarity of hindsight at the time though, and it was just pure slog to keep going.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Elizabeth Hughes.
Jane Hughes has been writing all her life, although she took a few detours along the way. She worked for the CIA, on Wall Street, and in academia as a professor of finance before finally allowing herself to take her fiction writing seriously. She’s an obsessive reader with three fully-loaded Kindles and has published widely on international finance, but loves to write books that she and her friends would devour on the couch or on the beach.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was that little short kid who read all the time. And I mean, all the time. At the dentist, during math class, at the dinner table, even at eye doctor appointments (which was problematic). I was always the last kid picked for teams at recess, but I didn’t care because I could curl up in a corner of the courtyard and read. I wrote my first “book” when I was seven; Lorena Lorenson, Student Nurse owed quite a bit to Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew — but it started me down this long and winding road towards realizing my dream of becoming a novelist.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Actually, I have two.
The first is from my favorite movie, Apollo 13 (I’m a sucker for competence porn). Tom Hanks has just delivered that iconic line, “Houston, we have a problem,” and Mission Control is in a frenzied state of near-chaos. Ed Harris as top Flight Controller tells everyone to quiet down and to “work the problem.” Work the problem! What a great concept! Even though you have three awesome guys facing an awful death in the blackness of outer space, don’t panic, don’t give into anger or discouragement or exhaustion, just work the problem! This has kept me going through my own numerous fits of anger, discouragement, and exhaustion.
I remember when my co-author and I had completed two years of work on our international banking textbook and sent the final version to the publisher with whom we had a contract. The publisher responded that they had decided not to publish the book after all, since our original editor had left the firm and our new editor wasn’t really interested in it. Two years of backbreaking work!! One whole week on a single footnote! And the publisher was walking away. I put my head down on the kitchen table and thought about bursting into tears, but then — I swear to God — Ed Harris popped into my brain and I lifted up my head again. Work the problem. Call a lawyer. Confer with my co-author. Call the editor-in-chief.
Six months later they published the textbook, to resounding success.
The second quote is from the brilliant Elizabeth Peters, in response to a question about how she got the idea for her book:
“A writer didn’t need ‘an’ idea for a book; she needed at least forty. And ‘get’ was the wrong word, implying that you received an idea as you would a gift. You didn’t get ideas. You smelled them out, tracked them down, wrestled them into submission; you pursued them with forks and hope, and if you were lucky enough to catch one you impaled it, with the forks, before the sneaky little devil could get away.”
Peters’ response inspired me to carry a little notebook with me wherever I went, day and night. I scribble all sorts of nearly-unintelligible ideas in my notebook, having learned the hard way that if I don’t capture an idea when it flits into my brain, it will flit right out…never to be seen again. So when I visited Queen Katherine Parr’s castle of Sudeley while doing research for The Long-Lost Jules (forthcoming, August 2021), I jotted the following notes:
“Big gray ugly was she scared? Scary was it gray or color? Gargoyles? Minstrels strutting. Why chapel so small? Henry a schmuck? Birth coil poor thing. KP running to old K. QEI here? J & L here? Gun fight!! Darting through abbey! (But why??)”
It made sense at the time, anyway.
How would your best friend describe you?
She often tells me that I’m brilliant, which makes me very uncomfortable. I think she would say, first and foremost, that we’re best friends — we’ve been there to listen, commiserate, celebrate, help each other, for more than 45 years. That I’ve provided insight and understanding in a way nobody else can. We backpacked through Europe together when we were barely twenty, so she knows I don’t mince words and will give my perspective even if it’s not what she wants to hear. She might add that although I seem very sensible and together on the outside, I’m a schmaltzy mush on the inside.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?
- I’m a very fast reader, which is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because I need an endless supply of long books to keep me happy; but a blessing because I can do research very quickly.
- I’m super-disciplined about writing. I’ve figured out that I have to treat writing like any other job; I can’t wait for the Muse to be with me or for inspiration to strike. So I write for three-four hours per day (more than that seems to fry my brain), whether or not I’m “in the mood.” When I hit a rough patch — when my characters just won’t behave and the plot seems hopelessly tangled — I make myself keep writing; I’ll go back later and fix the bad parts.
- I find people endlessly fascinating, and so many scenes from daily life — a newspaper headline, an argument on the subway, a toddler beaming up at her mother — may become scenes in my book. I peek into apartments as I walk on city streets at night and wonder about the lives inside those rooms; I observe families in restaurants and children in the park and businesspeople on their cellphones, and make up stories about them in my head.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I started on Wall Street as a “baby banker” in the 1980s, and worked my way up to Vice President in international corporate banking despite being a woman — and in those days that was a huge impediment! When I started having babies, I left Wall Street for academia, as a professor of international finance at Brandeis and then Simmons. I love teaching, and love love love my students (well, most of them anyway); and have won numerous teaching awards. I also published six well-received business books, with my seventh — Greed Gone Good: A Roadmap to Creating Social and Financial Value — coming out in Fall 2021. I’ve lectured and consulted around the world, for organizations including the Rockefeller Foundation, Asian Development Bank, and Interamerican Development Bank.
My dirty little secret is that I went into finance because I needed the money, not because it fascinated me. Besides being a novelist, I always wanted to be a ballerina…but I topped out at five feet (well, actually four feet eleven inches, but who’s counting?), with flat feet and a few extra pounds at my waist. Also no talent. I never dreamed of becoming a banker or finance academic.
But I got lucky, because finance really did come to fascinate me, especially once I discovered the new field of impact investing. We can harness the power of capital markets to benefit the world, so that greed really can be a force for good — and private investors can create social and financial value with their money. So I’ve enjoyed a very happy and productive First Chapter…and am even more thrilled with my Second Chapter as a novelist.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
Aside from family, reading is my greatest joy in life. Books have taken me through all of the triumphs and tribulations that the world hands out; sometimes I just wander through a library and bookshelf greeting all my old friends and remembering how much I loved this novel or that picture book.
So to me, writing books is simply a natural progression from reading books. As a novelist, I can create my own world — where people can fall in love and live happily ever after; where nothing terrible ever happens to children; where I can just lose myself and make my characters do what I want them to do (mostly, that is).
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
I started writing my first novel during a sabbatical from academia a few years back, and haven’t stopped since. With the benefit of hindsight, that first novel was probably not much more worthy of being published than Lorena Lorenson, but I kept writing — and I think I got a lot better with practice.
If I had to name one specific trigger, it would be when our cat Meeko died. (I’m a sucker for Siamese cats, too.) That bad-tempered, vain, egotistical little white cat had grown up with my children and ruled our household for 18 years. When I finally managed to bring him to the vet to be put to sleep, I sat in the parking lot and sobbed. Called my best friend. Cried some more. Called my eldest daughter. Cried inconsolably. And then a thought tippytoed into my head on little cat feet — maybe I can use this in a book? Maybe this experience will help me write a scene in a novel?
I picked up my head from the steering wheel, drove home, and grabbed my computer.
Ultimately, Meeko and several other cats found their way into The Spy’s Wife (forthcoming, June 2022) — and that is how my hopelessly self-centered cat helped me find my way.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
My academic career really helped me transition into my novelist career. Writing business books taught me the process of writing a book — and taught me how to overcome some of the pitfalls along the way. I never allowed myself to have writer’s block. Whether I was writing an article for a newspaper, a textbook on international banking, or a novel about a spy’s wife, I learned to keep slogging away and trust the process: Draw up the outline, follow the outline, revise the outline…put your head down and keep going whether it feels good or not.
Most people don’t understand how difficult it is for a debut author to get published — unless you’re a celebrity, of course. I wanted to scream with fury and frustration when Snooki (the Jersey Shore reality TV star) published her first novel, and I got yet another rejection letter. Carrie Fisher, Tyra Banks, Sharon Osbourne, and my idol Tom Hanks published novels — and I bet they didn’t get any rejection letters. Basically, the odds of getting a debut novel published seem to be approximately equivalent to getting struck by lightning and winning the lottery…on the same day.
My father was my inspiration here. He was a brilliant but deeply flawed man, but his greatest ability was his determination to keep forging ahead — no matter how many strikes he accumulated. He lost money, he went bankrupt, he started a new business, he lost that business, he got sued and lost; he even got trapped in a nearly-lethal hotel fire. But each time he found his way out, and kept going. In his seventies, bankrupt and living on handouts from me and my sisters, he started his own Second Chapter (or Third, or Fourth; I lost count) writing a series of features for a local newspaper on people starting Second Chapters of their lives post-retirement. He wrote about business executives who were selling handmade handbags, and math teachers who were driving taxis, and auto mechanics who were teaching preschoolers — and the column was wildly successful. He liked to say that he was the “oldest cub reporter in the world.”
So my own Second Chapter is a tribute to my father.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Scary. Amazing. Challenging. Fantastic.
Writing is sheer delight, but getting a debut novel picked up by a great publisher — not so much. It took me several years, lots of rewrites, and enough rejection letters to wallpaper a bathroom before I finally found a home with SparkPress.
I can’t describe the thrill of reading emails and posts from people who actually read — and enjoyed — my book. It’s like no other feeling in the world. After Simon & Schuster published my first novel, Nannyland, one reader found Lord John Grey cool and distant; another found him irresistible. One reader loves the children and Jordy’s growing relationship with them; another is fascinated by the historical research into Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days in the 1550s. The realization that people escaped into the world that I created, is truly magical.
On the other hand… I’m still feeling my way through the whole promotion process, since marketing is just not my thing and my social media skills are extremely middling. That’s the scary and challenging part of the new initiative, and I’m making my way — slowly — up a steep learning curve.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Sorry to be trite, but it’s definitely my husband. I was unsuccessful in selling my first two novels, and the rejection letters were practically waist-high; so I decided to give up writing. Several times. I couldn’t even go to bookstores, because I was so depressed by the rows and rows of authors who got published when I couldn’t. Since I read pretty much everything, I was especially downcast when I read books that I didn’t think were as good as mine — and yet they got published, and I didn’t! So I had temper tantrums and fits of the sulks pretty regularly.
And yet, my husband put up with it all, and kept encouraging me. It’ll happen, was his mantra. Someone will see how good your books are. And if it doesn’t happen, just write for your own pleasure. (“Pleasure!” I snapped back. “It’s hard work!”)
Then Marcy Posner, the brilliant agent who saw my promise, decided to represent me — and changed my life. Without my husband and Marcy, I would still be a frustrated and discouraged hobbyist, scribbling my stories without any hope that people would actually read them. Instead, I’m a published novelist! I still can barely believe it!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
It’s not one story, but a constant refrain. People insist on believing that my books are semi-autographical and trying to figure out who is who in real life. “Were your co-workers at the bank really so mean?” (no, this is fiction). “I’m nothing like the sister in your book!” (well, duh). “Did you really get chased by gangsters in Europe?” (what do you think?!) And worst of all, “Wow, you and your husband really have a hot sex life! I’m so jealous!” (no comment).
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I struggle with believing in myself as an international finance expert pretty much all the time. I’m a shining example of the Imposter Syndrome, which is loosely defined as thinking you’re a phony and are in constant danger of being exposed as a fraud (and is widespread among high-achieving women). I wish I could say that I overcame that belief, but it’s always hiding in some dark little recess of my brain. I just push past it, every time I teach a class or give a lecture.
When I was a young baby banker, an odd series of events brought me into the bank chairman’s office to brief him on an emergency in Mexican financial markets. In those days, women had to pretend they were just short men, so I wore a black suit, white blouse, and little bowtie (I kid you not). My knees were literally knocking together, which was unfortunate since he never asked me to sit down and I had to stand there, staring up at his beefy six-foot-plus body of sheer muscle. I realized that I’d forgotten to pee before he called me in, and flew into a panic.
But then my mind supplied a fun fact: Both the chairman and I had gone to Princeton (many decades apart, to be sure; when he went, it was an all-male bastion, and I was in the fourth graduating class of women). Rumor had it that he had a Princeton tiger tattooed on his beefy bottom. Suddenly I was able to remind myself that no matter how much taller and bigger and more distinguished he was than little old me, I definitely knew more about the Mexican peso than he did. I pictured the tiger on his tushie and started talking. (Much later, I discovered that it was someone else entirely who had the tiger on his tush — oh, well.)
But here’s the funny thing: As a novelist, I’ve never struggled with believing in myself. Never. No matter how many rejection letters I got or how many discouraging setbacks I encountered, I’ve always believed that my books are good. I’ve always believed that women will enjoy my books — the historical and current-day mysteries, the romance, the suspense — and will want to read more. I have no idea where I got this confidence; I just know I believe in my books. It’s amazing, because I doubt myself in virtually every other area of my life!
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
My biggest helpers have been my private group of early readers and cheerleaders — my sister, husband, friends and eventually, my agent. These are the folks who told me when a scene didn’t work; when a character just didn’t make sense; when a phrase was exactly right. And these are the folks who absolutely refused to let me give up, no matter how tired and discouraged I might feel. My sister begged me for more chapters, since she was desperate to know what would happen next — and that kept me going!
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
Actually, starting this new chapter brought me into my comfort zone. It’s not that my 30+ years in finance weren’t rewarding or stimulating or enjoyable — they were. I took pride in my teaching skills; I loved watching my students gain knowledge and confidence; and I believed that my contributions to the new world of impact investing were — well — impactful.
But when I started writing novels, I felt that I had come home. At last, I was in my comfort zone. I always start a book with character sketches; much of this backstory will never find its way into the book, but it’s my way of getting to know my people. Did she have a stormy relationship with her father? Where did he go to school? How do they relax? Who are his best friends? Why doesn’t she have any best friends? What’s their favorite music? My characters constantly fly through my head as I get to know them and figure out their story arc.
And then I get to write. I already have little snippets from my ever-present notebook, so I weave those into my trusty outline and write! Writing is my happy place, the place where I don’t feel like an imposter — even when my characters refuse to behave (they can be very mischievous). When I wrote the big reveal scene in The Long-Lost Jules, my fingers just danced over the typewriter (see, I did get to be a ballerina — of sorts) and I had a huge smile on my face…I was imagining the thrill of excitement that my readers might feel.
At long last, I was in my comfort zone.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- KEEP WRITING! You get better at it as you go along. My first and second novels never got published and, with the benefit of hindsight, didn’t deserve to get published. I didn’t have that clarity of hindsight at the time though, and it was just pure slog to keep going.
- DON’T BE ALONE! Have cheerleaders in your corner (my husband and sister were phenomenal), and don’t quit your day job. Sometimes my finance gig actually propped up my writing; it inspired Amy’s banking career in The Long-Lost Jules, and informed the money laundering subplot.
- REMEMBER: This can take a long time, and a lot of rejections along the way. My favorite rejection story isn’t mine, but Jennifer Weiner’s. When she was trying to find an agent for her first novel, she got plenty of rejection letters and terrible advice, including a letter from one agent who told her that nobody wanted to read a book about a fat lonely girl. Good in Bed, of course, went on to be a huge bestseller and Ms Weiner is one of the most popular women’s fiction writers today. Lots of people, it turns out, wanted to read about a fat lonely girl.
- INVEST? Think about putting away a little money to invest in your writing career — writers conferences and publicists are your best friend. The latter is especially a biggie for me, since I’m super-uncomfortable promoting and marketing my books.
- ACCEPT THAT WRITING IS A JOB, NOT A HOBBY! Hobbies are fun and relaxing; writing a book is work. It can be fun along the way, but much of the time it’s just hard work. When I was writing The Long-Lost Jules, I suddenly realized there was no climax — no moment when everything comes together and the reader gives a sigh of pure pleasure — and I spent a few weeks feeling sorry for myself and writing very forgettable prose. Then a former banking colleague got invited to spend a week on her client’s yacht in Marseilles — and bang! There it was. I erased the very forgettable prose and banged out the scene in a warm flush of sheer pleasure.
Most important, DON’T GIVE UP! My own journey to becoming a published novelist was long and difficult — but IT HAPPENED! Just believe in yourself, and KEEP WRITING
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Make your money do good for the world. Whenever and wherever you invest your money — in a pension fund, in a company, in a stock or bond — please investigate whether your money will produce good for society and environment as well as produce good returns for you. Find out how many women are on the Board of Directors or the executive team. Think about whether your company sells cigarettes or clean-energy cars. Remember that greed really can be good — your investments can be profitable for you, and beneficial to society.
And keep reading!! Teach your children and grandchildren to love reading as much as you do. When I was about four, my mother was reading a book while I played on the floor, and suddenly she burst out laughing. I climbed up into her lap and looked into her eyes. “What’s funny, Mommy?” I asked. She explained that it was something in her book and I gazed at that boring-looking volume (no pictures!) with uncertainty and wonder. I had better learn to read, I decided.
So I did. And I’ve never looked back since.
What do you want to be remembered for the most?
As a loving granny, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. No career — First Chapter in finance, or even Second Chapter as a novelist– can come close to that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My books are on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or you can check out my work on Facebook and LinkedIn:
My new website will be live in a few weeks, with book excerpts, blogs, reading recommendations, and lots more:
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!