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Janis Ian flourishes as author, audiobook performer 50 years after first hit record

It's been 50 years since Janis Ian had her first hit record, Society's Child, while still in her teens. She won her first Grammy, for her song At Seventeen, in 1975. Now 66, she's still writing and performing music, and in the last decade she has flourished in a new field as an author and performer of audiobooks.

Ian published her autobiography, also titled Society's Child, in 2008. "I really wanted to do an audiobook, but there was no interest," she says. Then a book marketer heard her at a reading and put her in touch with audiobook giant Audible — and the resulting audiobook won Ian her second Grammy award in 2013.

She has since written and recorded a children's book, The Tiny Mouse, published a number of science fiction short stories and narrated several audiobooks by other writers.

Ian will appear at the Times Festival of Reading on a panel called "The Long and Short of It" with mystery writer J.A. Jance, who described it in an email: "She's short — four-ten — and I'm tall — six-one. Our discussion (is) about how, despite our profound differences — gay/straight, Jewish/Protestant, Democrat/Republican — we are both pioneering women — the daughters of strong mothers — who stand with one foot in the world of art and one foot in the world of business."

Ian spoke by phone from her part-time home in the Bradenton area.

How did your panel discussion with J.A. Jance first come about? And how did you two meet?

Judy asked me to do it at the Tucson Festival of Books four years ago — Judy lives in Tucson part of the time — and it was great fun.

I met her because I volunteer at our local library in Nashville, and someone there had been to one of Judy's readings and told me she closes her talks with At Seventeen. So I wrote her an email thanking her, and eventually we arranged to meet at one of my shows, when my crew and I were passing through Tucson. She invited us to stay with her and Bill. They're great people. She said she had a wing for each of us, and I thought she was kidding. But she did — her house has an Ali wing and a Joanna wing, after (Jance's) main characters.

How did you make the transition from songwriting, which you began doing in childhood, to writing books?

I did start out writing songs and poetry, but then I did some journalism. I wrote a column for the Advocate for seven years, then I wrote for Performing Songwriter for 10 years.

The Advocate at the time was making the transition from a rag to a respectable magazine focused on gay rights issues. They decided it was too serious, so they hired me to write this column as their resident iconoclast. I wrote columns with headlines like "Lesbian Chic: A Contradiction in Terms."

I learned so much from Judy Wieder, who was my editor at the Advocate. I really learned the basics of writing articles, like checking facts, not using anything unnecessary. When you're writing a 1,000-word column, you don't have room for anything unnecessary. It stood me in good stead when I wrote the autobiography. After I turned the manuscript in, the editor asked me exactly one thing.

When did you start writing science fiction?

I can't remember whether I wrote the autobiography or my first short story first. The autobiography was very well received, and the audiobook won a Grammy. I just had my 10th short story published; they've appeared in various collections.

My friend Orson Scott Card gave me a great tip about writing books and stories. He said, get yourself a group that has writers and friends and someone who does not care about you, and have them all read your work. You don't have to take all their suggestions, but they'll help.

How did you move into narrating books by other writers?

I read the audiobook of Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves (by Maggie Schein) because Pat Conroy asked me to. For Patience & Sarah, I got the rights myself and narrated that with Jean Smart. Seeing her narrate was very different from narrating myself — she approaches it as an actor. That one got my 10th Grammy nomination.

It's not lucrative, but it's great fun.

When you and your wife, Patricia Snyder, married in Toronto in 2003, it was covered by the New York Times, and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin was your best man. Is he a friend?

We're longtime friends. George R.R. Martin and (science fiction author) Mike Resnick were our best men. George said at the time that would be the one and only time he'd be in the New York Times!

What do you like to read?

I read a lot of what used to be called young adult books. I grew up on A Wrinkle in Time — that was a very formative book for me. I read a lot of short science fiction. I find the current vampires pretty boring, although if you go back to Dracula, they were pretty scary.

I like happy endings. I like Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, the Little House on the Prairie books — I still go back and read them. I loved Connie Willis' All My Darling Daughters, I just re-read Maryrose Wood's The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, I loved the Harry Potter books.

You have a lively online presence, notably with a January Facebook post in response to the new administration, "Don't Tell Me to Get Over It," that has had more than 12 million views and 92,000 shares. What was that like?

I'm done with being polite. It's funny what goes viral. But it led to me becoming a contributor to Huffington Post, so it's all good. For someone who's been a recording artist since 1966, when you get half a million Facebook followers, that's pretty amazing.

Times Festival of Reading

Janis Ian and J.A. Jance will be featured authors at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. They will appear on a panel, "The Long and Short of It," at 2:15 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom.

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