The Five Questions: Tilia Klebenov Jacobs


“As the music started he and I realized we knew each other: he was one of my former students from a medium-security prison.”

Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is the author of Wrong Place, Wrong Time and the recently launched, Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Cafe. She tells us about an ex-con who turns out to be a great dancer, her admiration (which I share) for JK Rowling’s skill as plot-builder, and her frustration (again, which I share) with POV pedants.

  1. What’s the surprising inspiration behind one (your choice) of the characters or stories you’ve created?

A couple of years ago, my husband and I went swing dancing at a place we hadn’t visited before. As I circulated around the room, a gentleman came up and asked me if I’d like to dance. I said yes, but as the music started he and I realized we knew each other: he was one of my former students from a medium-security prison.

I had been thinking of putting together the book that eventually became Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café, but I didn’t have a main character. After talking to my former student—who, I should mention, turned out to be a very good dancer—I started thinking about what his life might be like. He seemed to be alone, which meant to me that he was probably looking for someone, since most of us are; and I suddenly thought, “At what point in the dating process do you tell the person that you’re out on parole?” Thus was born Emet First, nice guy with a dark past, baker extraordinaire, and parolee about to go on his first date in a decade. 

  1. If you could rescue one obscure book and make it more widely known to the world, which book would you choose and why?

I’m not sure it counts as obscure, since it’s by Shakespeare, but my first choice would be King John. It’s never read and virtually never performed, to the point where its uncelebrated status is a gag in the play The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). My husband and I caught King John at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario a few years ago, and it was fabulous: riotously funny in places, heartrending in others. It’s a gem of a play that has no audience.

After the performance, a few of the actors invited us to join them for dinner. While we were eating, I asked one of them why such a marvelous play is so little known. His answer was both fascinating and depressing: King John isn’t one of the half-dozen Shakespeare plays that are routinely taught in school, so there’s no built-in audience; therefore, it’s almost never performed; therefore no one knows about it; therefore it’s not taught in school. It was a real lesson in what makes a book or play live or die.

  1. You can ask one question to any author, living or dead. What would you ask and why?

I would love to sit down with JK Rowling and ask her how she plots her books. She is a genius at dropping invisible hints that become wildly important three hundred pages later, when you suddenly realize you had the information you needed all along. Anyone who’s read the Harry Potter series knows what I mean. For example, and I promise no spoilers, a snitch in Harry’s first Quidditch match in Book One becomes a crucial plot point six very fat books later; and yet the plotline it supports never feels contrived. That’s the real beauty of Rowling’s writing: it always feels very natural.

No one plots better than JK Rowling. Her books are one of the joys in my life. 

  1. What’s the best (or your favorite) feedback you’ve received from a reader?

Recently I received an email from a reviewer who had just finished reading my first book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, which is a hostage drama. She said, “You’ve written a spectacular book there and on this one topic I would know. Many years ago I was kidnapped, and I was wonderfully pleased to see you get it right when you wrote about the effects of such an occurrence on the victim. I love that you didn’t over-blow it; it was real and heartrending. I don’t think I’ve read, in all these years, such an accurate mystery about what the victim feels like afterwards.”

Her words almost brought me to tears. While I was writing the book I did a lot of research and soul-searching to try to imagine what life would be like for Tsara, my main character, after her ordeal. To know that I got it right to this extent—I was stunned, and so very grateful that the reviewer took the time to share her story and her praise with me.

  1. What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received from a teacher?

One very well-known author who also teaches workshops has insisted to me that one must never change point of view (POV) within a scene. In other words, if Sarah is talking to Rebecca, one must never, never shift from Sarah’s perspective to Rebecca’s and then (God forbid) back again. Apparently this is a rookie mistake that shows that the writer has lost control of her narrative, and it will give readers disorientation bordering on vertigo. Some readers claim to agree.

This axiom is very popular right now among authors and publishers, and there’s only one problem with it: great writers change point of view mid-scene all the time. John Grisham, JK Rowling, PG Wodehouse, AA Milne, Robert B Parker, Virginia Woolf, Stieg Larsson, Joshua Doder, and innumerable others do it. Ray Bradbury sometimes changes point of view within a single sentence. It’s a great technique and a very natural way to tell a story.

As for readers who claim to be befuddled by such things, they have just announced that they lack the intellectual chops to read Winnie-the-Pooh.

For more information about Tilia Klebenov Jacobs and her books:

Visit her online at

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