Jayne Pillemer, ‘06, sat down with The Brown and White to discuss her picture book “Still Mine,” which was published earlier this year by HarperCollins. “Still Mine” aims to make the subject of loss digestible for children through poetic phrases and accompanying illustrations. Previously the features editor, The Brown and White alumna shares her inspiration for the book, glimpses into her life and advice for students.
Q: What inspired you to create this book?
Jayne Pillemer: My grandmother is really the one who inspired this book. When she passed away, I was so devastated. She was such an integral figure in my life. She was a force of love. She had 10 grandchildren, and we all felt like we were her favorite. She just had that way of connecting with everybody and making everybody feel so special.
When she passed away, I was a young mother to a 2-year-old boy and a newborn boy at the time, and I was lost. How do I explain to my children something so big? I had never lost anyone — my grandmother was one of the first people in my family who had passed away. It was crashing down on me. Now, I’m a parent, and I have to explain the topic of death, and so how do I do that?
I pulled together some of that love that my grandmother gave me and the education I got from Lehigh University and my career at HarperCollins as a children’s book editor. It’s life experiences, it’s love that you have been handed down that creates and defines your heart, and it’s the education that gives you the ability to do something with all those feelings.
Q: What were some fond memories you had with your grandmother?
JP: My special thing with my grandmother was going on sleepovers when I was a kid. Well into my twenties, I still wanted to go to my grandmother’s house. She would teach me how to make some of her recipes. She had a delicious eggplant parmesan, and amazing homemade caesar salad and rice pilaf recipe that my children absolutely love today. So, her recipes still live on.
She and I would eat ice cream on the couch late at night, make hot chocolate late at night and watch reruns of “I Love Lucy.” Having hot chocolate reminds me of her, because she always had a box of Swiss Miss on the top shelf of her kitchen cabinet that was tucked away for me when I came.
Q: How important was it to continue your grandmother’s legacy?
JP: The concept of “Still Mine” is that even if someone passes away, the little pieces of their life that make up your heart don’t have to go away. And, the way I feel connected to her is by making her recipe(s) and sharing them with my children.
Q: How important is it to study your passion?
JP: I think it’s the most important thing. I feel like most people, especially when they hear you’re an English major, say “Oh my gosh, what are you going to do with that? You can only become a teacher — you’re never going to make any money!” But the truth is, doing something in math and science, or engineering or law, I would’ve been terrible at it even if I had studied really hard because I just lacked the interest.
I think if you lack interest, you lack motivation, and being successful in any career requires motivation. You can’t make a lot of money unless you’re motivated to get to the office early and work hard, and engage with the material. I could never foresee myself engaging with anything that I did with my novels and interviews with The Brown and White.
Q: How did your time at Lehigh impact your career?
JP: Lehigh was such a good foundation for me in terms of writing development. I feel like at Lehigh, I really, one, came into my own voice and my interest, but I also improved technically as a writer and developed both the skills as a journalist and essayist.
I had wonderful professors who were just amazing mentors who found your strengths and encouraged those strengths.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are interested in entering the publishing industry?
JP: Publishing is a super hard industry to break into, merely because there are so few publishing houses and editorial assistant jobs, which are entry level editing jobs right out of college that are hard to come by.
My advice is to network as much as possible. Developing your writing, honing your skills — knowing why you want to be in publishing gives you a huge leg up. Really identifying the specifics of what you want to do, trying to network, making connections and building your writing samples are really, really helpful.
Q: What was it like seeing your book flourish?
JP: One of the scariest things about publishing a book is that it is out in the world for criticism. You think, “Oh my gosh, I poured my heart and soul into this book and what if people don’t like it? What if it gets poorly reviewed?” You’re so proud of something and the fear can hold a lot of people back.
This was my first project. I really didn’t know if it was going to sink or swim or what the reactions were going to be. But, now that I have a little bit of that validation like, “OK, I am a writer. I can do this. I’m worthy.” I think that’s something everybody needs, that little bit of validation. Especially when they’re just getting started.