Tuesday, September 28, 2010

      Somebody once asked if awards had changed my life.
      No. And yes.
      During my journalism days, some of my stories won national awards -- stories about young fathers dying of brain cancer, and single mothers whose severely handicapped children blessed multiple lives, and a death row inmate who met weekly with his chaplain then killed himself right before the state planned to execute him. By grace beyond measure, my maiden effort at novel writing won a Christy Award.
       This month, Booklist, the magazine of the American Library Association, named "The Clouds Roll Away" one of the top ten romance novels of 2010.
       All wonderful. All joyful.
       But humbling.
       Because no matter what accolades have dropped from the sky, my life remains challenging. Dirty socks. Bills. Too much information about Lindsay Lohan. And every morning -- every single morning -- the blank page.
      Much more importantly, awards aren't the point.
      Sure, right. Awards aren't the point. Whatever.
      Yes, that statement does sound like platitude.
      But the point -- the crux -- of writing comes down to motive.
      Here's a list of good motives: Write to reach hearts. Write to show readers something extraordinary. Write to encourage good in the world. Write because God put the story on your heart.
      But never, ever write for awards. It's the equivalent of writing for money; before you know it, you've joined the world's oldest profession.
      My motive for writing "The Clouds Roll Away" was to show Raleigh Harmon's need for love. As a secondary motive, I hoped Raleigh's need would reflect the world's need, which is why the book takes place at Christmas, when "love came down" (thank you, Christina Rossetti).
       I didn't set out to write a romance. And I certainly never expected any award. I only hoped to show the God-shaped hole in the human heart.
       Ironically, when my publisher told me the Booklist news, my first thought was of the fallow years.
       That's what I've named the years when I quit writing. My family needed full attention, and then some. Young children. A dying father. A husband starting his own business. I walked away from the computer and spent most of my time at the kitchen sink, where Proverbs 11:25 was taped to the window: "He who waters will himself be watered."
       The fallow years blossomed into a garden paling my imagination. "Oh, what gracious lessons some of us have learned at sick beds!" wrote Charles Spurgeon.
       I'm deeply grateful to Booklist for recognizing "The Clouds Roll Away." Honored, and humbled.
       And now, if you'll excuse me, a good motive and a blank page are waiting.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Customer Servants

Sometimes we listen too much to "new wisdom."

     Take, for instance, the idea of in-store book signings.
     People who watch trends say, "Nobody goes to author signings anymore. Not unless you're a celebrity. Don't even bother doing them."
     I've had my share of cricket-chirping events, including a Barnes&Noble signing where I was asked one question: "Where's the bathroom?"
     Last Saturday, the Lifeway bookstore in Tukwila invited me to sign books as part of the store's one-year anniversary event. 
     I was very excited, yet also worried. 
     New wisdom said nobody would show up. I didn't want to let the store down. And I didn't want to give directions to the bathroom.
     But people came. On a sunny Saturday.
     Sunny. In Seattle. During a very rainy year.
     Amid the worst economy in decades.
     Every minute, the door swung open, ushering in homeschool moms whose only vacations happen between the covers of a novel. Grandparents. Ladies with saucy walks. Black women sporting terrific hats hooting "Get outta here!" when I described the rap musician in "The Clouds Roll Away." My whirlwind friend from Facebook, Hurricane Priscilla, spun into the store to meet in person (finally), swirling around husbands buying books to surprise wives who were resting at home. Hopeful writers. Readers who devour fiction. People who buy books to comfort those in need. And I enjoyed a long chat with a woman wearing a jacket from Emerald Downs -- a setting that appears in the book I'm currently writing -- whose fiance proposed on a cruise to Alaska -- a setting for the book that will appear in March, The Mountains Bow Down  -- and whose now-husband ambled over, only to realize that his wife and an author he'd never heard of had gone from strangers to friends in five minutes flat. He laughed and said, "What is it with you women?"
     But I don't think it was us.
     I think it's this Lifeway store.
     Granted, promotional events were going on during part of the day. My favorite DJ, Sam, from "Scott and Sam in the Morning" on 105.3 FM, broadcast live for short segments, filling the store with her laughter that like sounds like happy wind chimes. And the Veggie Tales characters greeted kids for awhile, too.
     But those two things were only a small portion of the morning. Sitting at my table for four hours, I watched the customers streaming through the door. Most were not coming for the promotions.
     When I packed up to leave, I mentioned to the sales staff that the store seemed unusually busy for this bad economy.
     "Actually today was kind of slow," said one of the sales clerks.
     Two years ago, the Nashville-based Lifeway decided to close its three Seattle-area locations, consolidating the staff from Bellevue, Issaquah and Overlake Church into the new space just past Southcenter Mall.
     I liked those stores, but this location feels better.
    "Before we open every morning, we pray over this space," said another sales clerk.
     As I drove home that afternoon, I reflected on the eternal battle between "new wisdom" and ancient traditions. Plenty of people might mock that store's morning prayer.  Some might even twist it into a picture of Christians treating God like the lottery -- pick the right words, win the money.
     But that's not what's happening.
    "You know what's the best part of this location?" said another sales person, who worked at the old Bellevue location. "We keep selling out of Bibles. Of course, I feel bad for the person who has to wait, but it just makes me so happy that we have to order more Bibles."
     Last Saturday, I was richly blessing in book sales and people-watching. But I also got to see genuine joy in customer service. The staff cheerfully helped people of all stripes and their attitude didn't change whether the customer's kid was spilling popcorn on the carpet or somebody was griping about an audio CD not working.
     It wasn't just good customer service.
     It was customer servants.
     And the spirit sustained.
     "The secret of a Christian," Oswald Chambers once wrote, "is that the supernatural is made natural in him by the grace of God, and the experience of this works out in the practical details of life."
      Certainly, "new wisdom" has its place, especially in a difficult economy.
      But nothing can replace the faithful promises of a loving God.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Time Away

I'm a big believer in vacations. Rest, renewal, rejuvenation.  Great stuff. Except I don't take nearly enough vacations. I'm a writer who thrives on routine, and get all hinky with altered mail delivery, unwatered plants, and empty refrigerators.

But mostly: the dog.

In this house, The Canine Queen is cherished. And she knows it. Whenever we left town, we hired sitters and dog walkers but her highness was never happy about it. Lately, her royal bark started leaving unmistakable "messages" regarding any extended absence. Last time I went away, I came home to a load deposited in the den, precisely where I enjoy reading books.

Not a dumb dog. Not a mean dog.

Just a dog who is very attached to her family.

We flew to Ohio to visit the rest of la familia. The dog stayed behind, and I held my breath all the way to the airport, wondering if I'd need to hold it when I walked back into the house seven days later.

But this time was different. I hired Time Finder.

It's a new business started by my friend Stephanie. Gifted with organizational skills and throwing parties, she offers a wide range of "you-can't-be-there-so-I-will" services, from personal shopping and running errands to "vacation services" that include everything from the dog stuff to restocking the fridge for your return. Her blog focuses on time management, organization, and enjoying life.

But above all that, Stephanie loves dogs. When I opened the front door seven days after we left, not only was there no "message," but the Queen was sporting a snazzy purple bandana -- as if to tell me she took the vacation. It wasn't just a relief to come home to that, but a joy.

And the kitchen had cut flowers from the garden, right next to a bowl of fresh fruit.

Happy happy dog. Flowers. No mail problems. And I didn't have to run to the grocery store when we got home.

Time Finder. Makes me wonder how to find more time for vacations.

If you're interested, contact Stephanie.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Tessa Afshar -- remember that name.

Her first novel "Pearl in the Sand," is getting rave reviews. Right now you can read the first three chapter of this wonderful novel -- free -- by going to the the author's website.  And then you'll probably want to know more. Tessa's life would make its own great adventure book.

Born in a nominally Muslim family in Iran, where she lived until age 14, Tessa enudred English boarding school before moving to the U.S. permanently. In her mid-twenties, she converted to Christianity and now holds an MDIV from Yale University.

When not writing, Tessa leads women's and prayer ministries for a New England church.

She was gracious enough to answer some of my questions.

 Pearl in the Sand is a historical novel about ....?

Pearl is based on the story of Rahab, the Canaanite harlot who is famous for having saved Israel’s spies from death. She then went on to marry one of the leaders of Judah, and is in the lineage of Jesus. Think about that: some of the DNA of this former harlot swam in Jesus’ blood stream! 

Is that what drew you toward her story?

My fascination with Rahab actually started in Italy. During a visit to Florence, I noticed that Ponte Vecchio—the famed bridge straddling the Arno River for almost seven hundred years—had tiny shops built right into its walls. They bulged out of the sides of the bridge like odd-shaped barnacles sticking out of the hull of a ship.

Walking over this bridge reminded me of the story of Rahab. The Bible tells us that she lived in the bowels of a wall too. Her house was built right into the defensive walls of Jericho. I wondered what it was like to live in a wall as I crossed Ponte Vecchio. 

Then I realized that we all know a little something about that. Most of us have to contend with walls in the interior places of our souls. Walls built on foundations of pride, fear, rejection, loss; walls that keep others at bay and shield us from drawing close enough to get hurt again. Suddenly I was hooked. I wanted to write about walls, about living in them, about pulling them down. I wanted to write about Rahab.

Her imperfections appealed to you as a writer?

Pearl in the Sand recounts the tale of a woman whose world was a mess, whose life was a mess, whose heart was a mess, but in encountering God, she found to her shock that her life was salvageable. More than that—it was valuable. She found that she was lovable. For her, this process happened through the love of a godly and persistent man who was nonetheless, flawed.

God started the most significant part of Rahab’s life by literally pulling down the walls of her home around her. As traumatic as that moment must have been for Rahab, she could not have moved on to the future God had planned for her without it. In a parallel pursuit of healing for her broken soul, Pearl in the Sand portrays a God who just as determinedly set out to ruin the walls surrounding Rahab’s heart. 

And there's a lesson in that for women today?

I think women today need to know God as the wooer and pursuer of their hearts. They need to know that sometimes the most glorious breakthroughs of life come through a vector of God-ordained pain. More than anything I hope the reader of this story will come away with a deeper glimpse into her own soul, and a more profound understanding of God the Father. 

But you chose to write about that through historical fiction, not contemporary drama.

I love indoor plumbing and heat and air-conditioning and the miracles of modern medicine. But there is a lot that our world has lost through the ages: a true sense of community, a recognition of our dependence on others and on God, a clear sense of right and wrong, a general romance about life. Historical fiction is a way of getting more in touch with some of these things. It’s not the only way, but it’s one of my favorite ways. Besides, the clothes rock.
For the people out there hammering away on a manuscript, tell us about your journey to publication.
What I didn’t know as I wrote Pearl was that there was no market for biblical fiction at the time. Had I been aware of this fact, I would have thrown in the towel. However, just as I finished the novel, a shift started to occur in the market and Wendy Lawton from Books and Such Literary Agency, who had become aware of this change, took me on as a client.

Following a couple of close calls that didn’t work out, Moody Publishers contracted Pearl and will be releasing it on September 1, nine months after I had officially signed with them. I have to stop and say that I LOVE Moody; they have been phenomenal to work with. The whole process of writing to publication took just over two-and-a-half years, which is quite fast for a debut novel.

What's been the most difficult part, start to finish?

What has surprised me about this journey is that most of my experiences of rejection have been internal. Many times, I have had to battle the forces of discouragement as I write, so I am astonished at the doors God seems to open. I think that in spite of His faithfulness, this is a skirmish that I’ll have to face again. My heart is susceptible to self-doubt. But Jesus is greater than my heart. I don’t stand on my gifting or my strength, which are both limited; I take my stand on Him who holds my future. Or at least I press on toward that goal.