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Q&A with Janet Roberts

Q. How did you build a career in cybersecurity education and awareness?

A. It was a bit of luck and leaning into my innate curiosity that landed me in this profession. I was working in corporate communications at a U.S. based company. Part of my job was to provide communications support to the information security department. I was so interested in the work they hired me to set up a security awareness/education program. I had no idea what it was and, in 2010, there were very few people in the world doing this work. But I learned, fell in love with it, and moved on from that company to larger, global companies where I redesigned or built programs to educate employees on cybersecurity risks.


Q.  Do all of your books have a cybersecurity plot twist?

A.  No. Initially, I was hesitant to use cybersecurity in my work. I thought being on the education end of it, rather than being a technical security engineer, pen tester, white hat hacker or threat intelligence expert meant it might be a little over what I should go for.  But as I grew in the profession, made great friends and contacts, and learned more, I decided I could add a little cybersecurity to my work.  Because cybersecurity changes rapidly and publishing is a bit slow, I’m careful to try to keep it to work that won’t become dated too quickly. What Lies We Keep is my first novel to incorporate cybersecurity but I’m working on a new novel that will continue with this trend.

Q. How long have you been writing?
A.  Technically, since I was about eight or nine years old. I’ve consistently written poetry and journaled, moving to journalism in college and then on to corporate communications. I was always writing fiction on my own, but I didn’t try writing a novel until 2006 or 2007.  I’ve never officially taken a creative writing class or obtained an MFA or other creative writing degree, but I layer in workshops and conferences wherever I’m able.

Q.  Do you always know the whole story, including the ending, when you begin?
A.  No, I’m more of an archeologist on a dig. Pantser not plotter. I see the main character clearly and their voice is pushing to be heard, and that character comes with a question of some sort.  I have a general idea of where I’m headed, along with a couple possible endings.  My first three novels resulted in a lot of revisions and rewriting, so now I do a little outlining. I love Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin!  This book really helped me find the bridge between what I do naturally and layering in a little organization or plotting.

Q.  How much of an influence have your years in corporations had on your current work?
A.  A lot!  For many years I worked a number of low paying jobs - journalist, paralegal, adjunct teacher - and refused to go into a corporation because I believed it wasn’t a fit for me as a person. The entire concept of striving for titles and being rated on a curve each year was appalling to me. I felt a corporation would ruin who I was as a creative person. Instead it  strengthened me. It gave me resolve and confidence where I was wandering aimlessly in search of a sense of success before. I found interesting work I had a passion for it. Corporate culture exposed me to people I would never choose to have in my life, but whose negative behaviors both fascinated and infuriated me, something that is actually fertile ground for a writer! It also gave me many good things - good friends, solid pay and benefits, the ability to retire, and opened international travel where I learned about other cultures. The whole experience has made me stronger and wiser as a person. It’s helped me drive my writing a little better and harder. None of my characters mimic any one real life person, but some are an amalgamation of many things I observed about the human nature - good and bad.  I’m pretty sure I’ll revisit corporation culture or something similar in future writing projects, but it won’t be present in every book. 

Q. Your female protagonists always face an inner struggle to find their own strength, often coupled with an outward struggle to forgive someone who has hurt or wronged them in some way. Is that intentional?
A. I think it began as instinctive and has since become somewhat intentional. I don’t know any women, myself included, who are born understanding their own inner strength or able to find their own voice immediately. It’s an ongoing journey. Each decade I find I’m a little bit stronger, a little bit surer of my own abilities, and a little bit clearer on how to express myself and be a voice at the table for things I feel are important. Forgiveness has always been a necessary but difficult struggle for me. I don’t intentionally layer it into my work, but it seems to wiggle its way into the journey of at least one character in spite of me. I actually decided What Lies We Keep would not to have the “forgiveness thread” - as I think of it - in the book, but it surfaced in the ending when I, initially, fully intended it to go in another direction. 

Q. You’ve traveled quite a bit, and you’ve lived in a number of different cities, yet your books are all set wholly or partially in Western Pennsylvania. How strongly do your roots influence the choices you make in your writing and what made you finally decide to move back to Western PA.?
A. All three of my novels were written while I lived outside Western PA. I assuaged homesickness by incorporating it into my work. My grandmother once called me a “rolling stone that gathers no moss” and she’d be surprised, were she alive today, that I finally moved home craving roots and wanting to grow a little “moss”. The travel bug still bites me regularly. I have friends in other states and countries I love seeing. Exploring new places and cultures helps me add dimension and flavor to my novels and my life.. In that way, my work is a reflection of me. I define Western PA as “home”, but I like adding new adventures for myself and my characters. The nomad in me hopes, but can never say, I’m here permanently and so my characters sometimes stay here and other times bring the feeling of this beautiful area of the country with them when they decide to live elsewhere. Now that I live in Pittsburgh, I’d like my work to highlight the region and provide a deeper sense of the place I call home no matter where I am on any given day.

What Lies We Keep is set in Montana and in Pittsburgh. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is one of my favorite places on earth. I’d intended for this novel to be placed in Chicago (where I was living at the time I began writing it) and Wyoming. But when I  rented a car and drove from Jackson through Yellowstone National Park to Montana for a few days, absorbing that state for the first time. I fell in love with Montana. Each time I tried to move the characters from Montana to Chicago, I’d walk the streets of Chicago, sit in coffee shops, imagine away, and then see them in Pittsburgh. So the decision was made - Pittsburgh and Montana. An odd combination but it felt right to me as a writer. 

I knew The Narrow Gate needed to be set in a small town and the small town I was most familiar with was McDonald, PA, thirteen miles outside of Pittsburgh, where my mother grew up. My memoir, Seven Thin Dimes, is a companion piece to that novel. The Leaf Queen is the only novel, although entirely fiction, that grew out of some personal experiences and allowed me to showcase the beauty of the Great Lakes and my birthplace city of Erie, PA. I think of a line in The Storyteller, where author Jodie Piccoult writes, “All writers start with a layer of truth, don’t they. If not, their stories would be nothing but spools of cotton candy, a fleeting taste wrapped around nothing but air.”

Q. When you write, do you begin with a character or do the characters evolve out of the storyline?
A. I begin with a character, sometimes two characters or more. I’ve tried to write in one point of view, but now, three novels into my writing career, I know that I’m simply a multi-POV writer! I can see the characters clearly and often even have a name rolling around in my head. Someone once told me all great novels start with a question and I usually have a question popping up around the character I’m thinking about.

Q. Twice you’ve written in both the male and female protagonists voices. Is it difficult for you to write in the voice of a male character?
A. I grew up with two brothers and five male cousins, and for over ten years I’ve worked in a predominately all male environment. It isn’t difficult for me to imagine a female character in dialogue with any of the many men I know, working forward in the writing from there. I consider my writing genre to be contemporary fiction, although it could be defined as women’s fiction. I find that I can fairly easily write men and women, but I love writing women on a journey to their best selves. Somehow that underlying goal gives me an ease and better flow when writing in male or female voices in my work.


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