Friday, February 3, 2012

New Author Spotlight! Meet Jessica Yinka Thomas!

Author, Jessica Yinka Thomas

Today, I am very excited to introduce you to an ambitious and multi-talented new author! Meet Jessica Yinka Thomas, author of the daring new novel, How Not to Save the World. I had the opportunity to interview Jessica for Lit Legs recently. In this interview, Jessica dishes on how she broke into the writing scene as a new author and what her background in social entrepreneurship has brought to the table! 

So Jessica, you have a background in mechanical engineering and sustainable social entrepreneurship. Tell us a little bit about your work in these areas. What drew you to these fields of work?

I’ve always loved exploring different fields. At Stanford, I had the opportunity to major in Product Design an interdisciplinary major where I explored psychology, art design and mechanical engineering. I started out my career on a traditional engineering path, designing mobile satellite communication systems but I quickly discovered that my brain craved a more creative application of my engineering background.

 My favorite project in college was designing a set of life size building blocks so I decided to cold call toy companies I admired until I found one that would hire me. After some fast talking, the first company I called, LeapFrog, a startup at the time that produced educational children’s toys, brought me on board. I loved the challenge, the creativity and the impact of designing educational toys. One of my favorite toys that I developed was called the Twist and Shout and taught multiplication equations set to a hip hop beat. The toy was an instant hit. Oprah named it as one of the best Christmas toys of 1998. It was such a thrill to see a young girl on her show doing multiplication tables with a big smile on her face.

 I worked on over a dozen toys in half a dozen languages distributed around the world and the letters that we received from children and parents about the impact of the toys on their lives kept me going during eighty hour works weeks for years. I became very interested with the potential that business can have to drive change and to create a positive impact on the world. So I decided to go to business school at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to study social entrepreneurship.

Since business school I’ve had the chance to study different models and strategies for affecting positive social and environmental change on our world and our communities. What drew me to toy design now draws me to sustainable social entrepreneurship. It’s from this diverse background that I also draw my twin passions in writing for technological innovation and for creating significant social change through entrepreneurial ventures.

You’re the managing director for The Center for Sustainable Enterprise. Can you tell us a little bit about the Center and the work you do there?

The Center for Sustainable Enterprise (CSE) is an academic research center at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The center studies how business can drive global social and environmental change. I’ve had the pleasure of working at the Center for almost five years. First to launch and manage BASE, UNC’s Business Accelerator for Sustainable Entrepreneurship, a business incubator that helped to grow what we call “triple bottom line” businesses, businesses that measure success in terms of a of people, planet and profit. And now, as the managing director of the center where I have an opportunity to do everything from write academic articles, to work with students on career development to designing the curriculum.

My day job definitely provides we with a lot of inspiration for my evenings and weekends of writing. I’m inspired by the businesses we work with from Fortune 500 companies to start-up ventures, that are developing new and innovative ways to safeguard our planet and have a positive impact on our communities all while making a profit. I’m inspired by the students and alums from the program whose personal visions to use business as a tool to make the world a better place only grows as they progress in their degrees and their careers. I’m inspired by the people I work with who have made a lifelong commitment, against all odds, to turn a business school into not just a rigorous academic institution but an incubator for change. Can you tell I love my job? If I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to pull myself away from writing.

Here’s the big question: What motivated you to start writing fiction?After leaving LeapFrog, I started doing consulting work for smaller start-up toy companies where I would work for several months and then take a few weeks off to travel. As a way to continue to explore the creative side of my brain, I started out writing nonfiction travel stories as I traveled around the world in my twenties. Before then, I shied away from creative writing because I thought of myself as an engineer.

 I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way while traveling across Australia and wrote in big capital letters at the close of the book, I WILL WRITE A NOVEL. Reading the book was a transformative process that exposed the writer in me. Now, I’m inspired to write because I see storytelling as a compelling mode to engage people in big ideas. My hope is that everyone who reads my work will think about how they can find their personal path to leaving this world better than the way they found it. I also just love writing. I’ve never had a moment of writer’s block. The page is the one place I can funnel all of the ideas swirling around in my head. With a generous amount of editing, those ideas can be transformed into a story and even a novel, or two or three.

How Not to Save the World by Jessica Yinka Thomas

The main character, Remi, in your novel How Not to Save the World, is a young woman who has involved herself heavily in social work. How do you feel you are similar to your main character? How do you feel you are different?

As a first time author I must confess that I drew from my personal experiences to create my main character, Remi Austin. I certainly share her personal vision for social justice in a very inequitable world, although my methods are much more strategic and legal than hers, for the most part. Other than that, we are very different. It was fun getting to know Remi and watching her character develop and build over the course of twenty five drafts.

What would you say was the most challenging part of writing How Not to Save the World?

 Writing How Not to Save the World was a delightful challenge. The toughest part was certainly finding the time to put pen to paper. I wrote the novel over the course of 10 years while juggling a day job, grad school, a family, and a social life. I had to be very strategic about fitting in my writing. I found that as long as I was consistent, even if I was only writing five or ten minutes a day, I could make progress. I created structure around writing by taking writing classes and then joining writing groups that kept me going during that decade.

Recently I’ve had the flexibility to scale back my day job to half time which is great because I’m now marketing How Not to Save the World and writing its sequel. So these days I can usually commit at least 2 hours to marketing and promoting my first novel and two hours to working on the second novel. Part of my marketing strategy includes getting book clubs to read the novel. This has actually provided fantastic feedback for me as a writer and as I work towards completing the sequel.

I’ll often write on my lap using my laptop on my living room couch or the local library if I’m going to put in several hours. Much of the writing process for the sequel involves idea generation. The woman who runs my fitness class is probably frustrated that I will often pick up my iPhone in between sets and make notes about dialogue, character development, settings, etc. She probably thinks I’m texting my friends, but it does help my productivity and keeps my mind distracted during the bicep curls.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer throughout this writing and publishing process?

The process of writing and publishing my first novel has been an adventure! Four years ago, shortly after I completed the novel, I found a small local publisher interested in publishing the novel. After 6 moths of designing the cover, putting together the marketing strategy and preparing to release the novel, the publisher went out of business. It was heart breaking. Not long after that I was preparing to go on a brief maternity leave with my first child and decided to self-publish the novel with all the "free time" I was going to have. That was a disaster, for the book. I could hardly keep my attention off of my little guy and what free time I had was committed to short naps.

Once I got the hang of motherhood I found a literary agent interested in representing the novel. She shopped it around all the major and minor New York publishers. Over the course of 14 months we got a stack of glowing rejections letters but no takers. That took me to last September when I decided to finally make a real commitment to self-publishing the book. So after fourteen years of writing and publishing and publishing, I’ve learned that I must be a writer! Either that, or I’m crazy, or both.

What books have most influenced your writing?

The authors whose books have greatly influenced my writing span the literary spectrum. I devour the writings of William Gibson for the brilliant cyber worlds that he creates. Janet Evanovich’s early work inspired me to create a spunky kick-ass female character who doesn’t know it all but can figure it out. Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith encouraged me to explore cultural conflict by the way they write as if they were gazing into our collective soul. And finally the great authors on social impact and sustainability, Muhammad Yunus’s Creating a World without Poverty, David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky and on and many more drove me to write a book that is a call to action for social justice.

"Janet Evanovich's early work inspired me to create a kick-ass female character..."

What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, the autobiography of Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, one of the inspirations for the African Peace Collaborative in How Not to Save the World. I’m working on a sequel so I’ve been re-reading How Not to Save the World to remind myself of some of the characters’ more obscure traits.

If you had to choose, which author would you consider a mentor?

My father. He is an economist and would never define himself as an author although I have a shelf full of his academic publications. He has committed his life to demonstrating how technology can be a powerful tool for social change. His work has changed many thousands of lives for the better. He is my writing role model and mentor in many ways. He has read the first novel and I hope he feels compelled to keep reading.

Finally, what would you say to aspiring novelists?

 Write what you love! I’ve taken my inspiration from the world around me and from the parts of life that I love. I weave my travel experiences into my writing, my passion for technological innovation and my personal vision for creating large scale social and environmental change.  The story in How Not to Save the World evolved from a desire to create a compelling story that would include all of those elements.

 Write every day! Even if it’s only 30 seconds of making notes on your iPhone, or 5 minutes on the computer at the end of the day. Be creative in finding that elusive time.  I discovered a great app called Dragon Dictation that transcribes audio. So, I will “write” on my commute to work, capturing ideas along the way, but only at red lights, of course. This Year Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley was an inspiration to me. Writing every day is one of the core concepts among other very actionable strategies. So this year, I will write my second novel!

I hope you enjoyed hearing from Jessica, today! If you found this interview interesting or helpful, I know Jessica would love to hear from you! Leave her a comment, below. You can also contact Jessica through her site. Click Here! Or, follow her via Facebook and Twitter!


  1. Laura - Thank you so much for the thoughtful interview and for your interest in my work! It's always great for me to remind myself why I spent 10 years writing and 4 years publishing my first novel. I really appreciate the opportunity to share my passion for writing with your Lit Legs community! I welcome feedback and questions on my writing and my work more broadly defined :) I can be reached at
    Jessica Yinka Thomas

  2. Roger Hamilton
    please about success Take it one day at a time. I just had a SEO executive on feb 2th 2011 Now I have a cold.
    I have imagined all sorts of things, and when it comes down to it, I just have to deal with whatever comes.
    Feel like total crap right now, and anything will be better than this.



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