Unbelievable. Sometimes there are success stories that simply make you fall out of your chair. I have known Jamie Collins for about 10 years. She first contacted me really out of the blue to ask me if I would mentor her as a writer. I sure did get lucky. I watched this Super Star go from a novice writer to a high profile blogger and now, author of a best selling book with appearances on national TV. And yes, she still maintains her Litigation Paralegal position in a prestigious law firm.
Since she has had this astounding success, I caught her on the Dr. Oz show. Can you imagine? I know that she spent 3 years writing I Am Jessica and let me tell you, it was well worth it. It underscores the adage that if you really want something, you have to take charge and make it happen.
How did you land in the paralegal field?
I walked into my first law firm at age 20, wide-eyed and wonder-struck, wearing a power suit and high heels, with a beautiful resume, and absolutely no legal experience whatsoever. As fate would have it, I landed a gig answering phones at that firm and learned how to do paralegal work in the years that followed. I’ve now worked in the paralegal field for the past 22 years. I never met a litigation file I didn’t love. (Okay, that may be a wee bit of a stretch, but I truly do love my job.) I’ve worked on class actions stemming from the terrorist attacks on 9/11, handled asbestos and tobacco cases, and handled more personal injury and wrongful death claims than I could count. I love doing trial work and have actively assisted with numerous jury trials. I love the thrill of being in the court room, and enjoy working as a liaison to clients.
I began writing for Chere Estrin as a legal columnist for Know: The Magazine for Paralegals and her well-known blog, The Estrin Report a decade ago.
Tell me about the book. How did it originate?
The book is a true crime memoir, written to tell the story of my cousin, Jessica Pelley (n/k/a Jessi Toronjo). When Jessica was 9-years-old, she went away to a sleep over at a friend’s house for the weekend. When she returned home on Sunday, her house was surrounded by crime scene tape and there were cop cars everywhere. Her entire family had been murdered—her mom, stepdad, and two little sisters, ages 6 and 8.
While Jessi and I weren’t close as kids, due to a lack of time spent together, and distance, we would one day reunite on Facebook, as grown women. We would start messaging, calling one another, and get to truly know one another. We became not only “cousins” in the truest sense of the word, but also became friends. One day we were on the phone, and I had just finished reading a book written about the tragedy, where the author killed our family off in the early pages of the book, without ever sharing anything about who they were as people. I felt offended by it. I knew that she, as the surviving daughter and sister, had to feel offended by it. I said, “You know, Jess, if you would ever want to tell your story, you’d have one heck of a story to tell.” She replied, “I know, but I couldn’t talk to a stranger about my life.” I said, “Well, could you talk to me?” She said, “Probably. I think I could.” And, so it began . . .
What is the book about?
Aside from what I just shared, the book is a survivor’s anthem. It’s about Jessi’s struggle during the time she spent crawling through three decades of trauma and tragedy that claimed her life, and her journey trying to find her way to reclaim what was lost or stolen. We told it in an raw and authentic way. And we didn’t sugarcoat a thing. Our souls are on those pages.
What is your relationship?
My mom was the eldest of eight siblings. Jessi’s dad, Ed, was my mom’s younger (and only) brother. Jessi and I are three years apart in age, but we never saw one another often as children. I lived seven years of my childhood in Stuttgart, Germany, because my dad was a helicopter pilot in the Army, so distance was definitely a factor.
How long did you spend writing it?
It took me a year and a half to get the story written. I then had to figure out how to piece it all together. I spent another 6 months in the phases of developmental editing and copy editing. (Next came the design phase. As a perfectionist in all things design, I gave my designer a run for the crown of roses for sure.)
How did you do the research?
I read everything I could get my hands on about this tragedy. This was a story that made national news back in 1989, so there was quite a bit of information available online. I also spent months interviewing my cousin, by phone, to learn her personal story. For me, this was a lot more than just a rehashing of facts or retelling of a true crime plot. It was a sacred honor to tell her story—our family’s story. I followed my intuition the whole way there. It was important to me that we remain 100% authentic, and that I tell it like I believe it deserved to be told—with a bold voice and fearless authenticity.
Where are we now with the book?
The book was published on April 29, 2019, which marked the 30-year-anniversary of the murders. We officially kicked off our publicity tour in New York City, where we appeared on a national talk show. (It was exciting and surreal, all at the same time. And cool that we got to share those special moments three decades after darkness.) The book was a #1 New Release in its category on Amazon and became a #1 Bestseller in its category on Amazon. The book was an award-winning finalist in the “True-Crime: Non-fiction” category of the 2019 International Book Awards. We are proud of the recognition the book has received so far and hope to help a lot of people with her important story of healing and hope.
Can you tell us about the upcoming national TV show? Are you going to be on it?
I cannot tell you what show it is right now, but I can tell you it is going to be on prime time television! I will appear on the show, alongside several others, to help fill in the pieces of my cousin’s life story. The production team has been absolutely amazing to work with. My cousin and I pretty much find ourselves immersed in a walking dream. This show was, so far, the coolest thing we’ve had the opportunity to do. We are excited to share this story with the world in the hopes of helping other people who may find themselves struggling with similar issues of loss, grief, trauma, PTSD, OCD, helplessness, tragedy, dysfunction, or loneliness.
Tell us about the PR you have received.
When it came to publicists, we hired the best in the business and found ourselves in the throes of a publication whirlwind. The book was featured by the New York Post and on numerous local television stations, and newspapers. We were featured on the cover of the Carmel Current, my hometown newspaper, and gave interviews on several radio stations and numerous podcasts. We taped a national talk show prior to publication, that aired in July of 2019. We were invited to host book signings at Barnes & Noble and Indy Reads Books on launch weekend. (This doesn’t normally happen for indie published books, so we feel incredibly lucky and blessed to have had the opportunities to meet our fans and sign books for them.) We have several other projects underway currently behind the scenes and look forward to continuing to hold a space for others to find healing and hope.
Where can I run right out and buy it?
I Am Jessica: A Survivor’s Powerful Story of Healing and Hope is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target, Walmart, and Books-A-Million online, in addition to other online retailers. Hardback is also available at most retailers. (Please leave us an honest review of the book, if you read it. It really helps us!)
I know our audience wants to get some advice from you. What can you tell us?
When trying to accomplish an audacious goal, we tend to think it’s all about what we are working so hard to accomplish—that dream we want to make our way toward—to reaching the end game. Hear me clearly when I say this. It’s not. It’s about the person you become while wiping the sweat from your brow, yet again, picking yourself up one more time, and crawling a few more feet across that field of thorny dreams (with a broken high heel and a few blisters), limping along with a big smile on your face, becoming better than you were before. You won’t be the same person who walked into the land of dreams. You won’t be the same person you used to be, once you manage to conquer that big, scary, amazing, “impossible” thing. And that’s epic. Because, in that moment, you’ll realize you can have anything you are willing to truly go after in life. Anything you are bold enough, crazy enough, and daring enough to chase. You’ll wipe the sweat from your brow, once more, pull those high heels up a little tighter, and begin.
It’ll be so worth it in the end. (And you’ll learn that the “end” is really just the beginning!) Just start anywhere. And don’t you stop. You’ll totally figure it all out, and make your way there, if you just do those two things. Start. And don’t ever stop.
And that, my friends, is an awesome story about an outrageously successful paralegal. I can't wait for the movie.