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An interview with Author Jill Tietjen

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Author Jill Tietjen talks to us about the process of writing Over, Under, Around, and Through and overcoming obstacles in her own life.

Can you talk a little bit about your background and how it brought you to write this book?

I am an electrical engineer who spent her career in the electric utility industry. During my career, I wrote many articles, reports, and expert witness testimony. In parallel, I was active in the Society of Women Engineers, through which I started researching women (historical and contemporary) in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). That avocation led to articles, then my first books. One of my friends and I agreed to write an introduction to engineering book for Prentice Hall and that led to additional writing opportunities. By 2020, I had nine books that had been published. Then the pandemic hit.

During a virtual happy hour during the pandemic (in May 2020), a person I know suggested that a book should be written about women in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, the obstacles they faced, and how they overcame those obstacles. I am an inductee into the Hall. I contacted another inductee, a friend of mine, Ellie Greenberg, and told her about this book idea. On a sunny summer afternoon in June 2020, on Ellie’s back patio, socially distanced over lunch, we began the plans for the book.

When did you first start writing?

I think I have always been writing. I know I fell in love with diagramming sentences in about eighth grade. And, I know that writing my term paper in high school, with notes on index cards, was a labor of love. A requirement to graduate from the engineering school at the University of Virginia (my alma mater) was writing an undergraduate thesis. I did the research and wrote my thesis and really enjoyed it. I remember at that time writing science fiction stories as well. I always liked and did well in both English and mathematics – an unusual combination.

How did you first start writing this book? What was its inspiration? And how did you choose the women who you featured in the book?

(the first two of these questions are answered in response to the first question.) When Ellie and I started planning our book, I put together a spreadsheet of all of the women in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. We went through the list and identified all of the contemporary ones with whom we had some sort of relation. We reached out to all of them. We interviewed all of the ones who responded affirmatively. We wanted 30 and we got 31. Once we had more structure to the book, we decided that 50 would be a good total and did the historical research to identify 19 more women on whom there was adequate information to identify an obstacle, determine how they overcame they obstacle, and to write a story.

The book is split into sections (Mental Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, Social Support, Moral Compass/Spirituality, Determination/Perseverance/Persistence, Optimism, Creativity, Resilience, Action-Orientation, and Passion). When you were doing research for this project, how did you come up with these categories?

We found sources of information that identified skills that people used to overcome the obstacles in their lives. We put those skills into a list and evaluated the skills and list. We ended up with ten categories that we used as the chapter headings and a mechanism to group the stories for the women. As we wrote the stories, we decided the category in which to place the woman. In most cases, the woman used more than one skill, but we placed her in the category that seemed to be the dominant skill.

When was a time in your life that you exhibited one of the above skills in a tricky or difficult situation? (Tell us a bit about the situation and how you handled it)

My story in the book is titled “What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen?” and it appears under the category of Resilience. My first husband and I had been married for nine months and were both working at our first jobs out of college when his father shot his mother and another man (on a Tuesday). On that Saturday, my first husband had to make the decision to disconnect his mother’s ventilator – on what was her 43rd birthday. His two younger brothers were 18 and 14, and they came to live with us. My first husband had to get formal court-ordered custody of his youngest brother. Six weeks later the other man died. Two weeks after that, his father committed suicide.

His brothers had to leave Virginia and come to live with us in North Carolina. We got them both enrolled in schools and got them through high school and eventually both through college. The younger one went to law school.

We did it by putting one foot in front of the other and keeping on. I think it shows resilience. I also think is shows determination – perseverance – persistence. It probably shows action-orientation as well. At the time, I guess we did have other choices, but we didn’t see it that way. We wanted to give his brothers the best lives we could and to continue living ours as well.

You have a very accomplished career in the STEM field. When you were first starting your career, were there any instances when you were doubted because you were a woman? Can you talk a little bit about how that made you feel and how you handled the situation?

I was always doubted because I was a woman. I had to consistently prove myself in every situation. Very much like Temple Grandin’s story in the book which is titled “Work Harder, Work Smarter,” and is found under the category of “Mental Intelligence”, I worked harder and worked smarter. I had to prove capability and competence and expertise always. That is one of the reasons why I have so enjoyed my association with the Society of Women Engineers – I never had to prove myself; I was accepted as I was.

What was one of the biggest lessons you learned through the writing of this book?

I learned to trust my instincts. I can tell stories. And, I was very fortunate to find a supportive publishing company. It makes things so much better.

If you could give a young woman any advice as she grows up, what would it be?

Always do your very best. Work hard. Dream big and work to achieve those dreams.

And, the five tips that I give now for how to become more resilient in turbulent times:

1. Never give up.

2. Remember the only thing you can control is your attitude.

3. Don’t curse the darkness when you can light one little candle.

4. Prepare for the worst thing that can happen.

5. She who laughs . . . lasts. Develop your sense of humor and use it.

What are some of your favorite books that you’ve read?

First Things First by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

What’s next for you? Are you working on other projects?

I have quite a few projects that I am working on. Many of them relate to my passion of writing women into history.

There are a number of books that follow in the footsteps of my bestselling and award-winning books Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman) and Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women and the Movies (written with Barbara Bridges). The first book in the Her Story Africa series Her Story Kenya is under contract to ZionPearl Publishers of Nairobi, Kenya. It is on track to be published during 2022. The Her Story Tanzania and Her Story Zambia volumes are drafted and I am looking for publishers for them. I am currently doing the research and writing for Her Story South Africa. I am working with a co-author (a magician) on Magic: Her Story. We are currently approaching publishers. The Food: Her Story volume is currently in hiatus as my co-author (a culinary historian) recovers from health issues. Another co-author and I have started a series of children’s books in the Her Story series but they are currently on hiatus as well. In addition, I am the series editor for Springer’s Women in Engineering and Science series for which 12 volumes have been published. At least four books in the series including one that I am co-volume editor on, Women in Infrastructure, will be published in 2022. I am also co-volume editor on a volume on Women in Power which is to be submitted for publication during 2022.

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