LL: How and when did you decide to become a writer? Were you one of those born with a pen in their hand, or did it "just happen" because your road in life took you that way?
VS: No, I was not one of those people who dreamed of writing as a child. Actually, the idea didn't occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties. I was a major science fiction / fantasy fan (still am!) and someone introduced me to Isaac Asimov's short stories about that time. That man was a master of the short story, and he made it look so easy! I thought, "Gosh, I can do that."
LL: And so you tried?
VS: I wrote my first short story way back in 1985 and sent it in to the top sci-fi magazine. It was rejected, and I was devastated. I was too inexperienced to know that a personal, handwritten note from the editor was good, and I had no writer friends to encourage me. So I didn't send anything else in for many years. But I did keep writing, and even started a fantasy novel that I worked on for years. I was a closet writer, though, too embarrassed to tell anyone about my writing. But during those next few years the dream to become a real writer took root.
LL: What steps did you take to see that dream come true?
VS: I'd never had any formal training in creative writing, and decided to take a correspondence course - that way no one would have to know! I completed the Long Ridge Writers Group's "Breaking Into Print" course, and loved it! I was assigned a teacher who had published several sci-fi novels and lots of short stories, and we worked one-on-one for months, for the duration of the class. I discovered that all those years of being an avid reader had taught me a lot about structure and plot and character development, and I started fine-tuning what I had already been doing instinctively. I also learned about discipline - setting a schedule, working toward a deadline. And I learned how to receive criticism about my writing without taking it personally. I highly recommend this sort of instruction to anyone who is just getting started.
LL: It is indeed a good start. What did you do next?
VS: When I finished that course I took a big step and joined a writing critique group. This group was for professional sci-fi / fantasy writers and those who were serious about becoming professionals. It had entrance requirements - I had to be sponsored by one of the members, submit a story I'd written, and be voted in. Over the next several years my writing skill improved incredibly, as did my critique and editing skills. Plus, this group encouraged me to start submitting my stories again; they rejoiced with me over small victories, and commiserated with me over rejections. They helped me develop that thick skin a writer must have!
LL: Ain't that the truth… Sorry; please, go on.
VS: For the next several years I had some small successes - a couple of national contest wins, a nonfiction article published in a national magazine - but I just didn't seem to be able to break through that publication barrier with my fiction, which was my passion. I wrote over 40 short stories and two novels, and had lots of "close, but not exactly right for us" experiences.
Finally, I decided the Lord might be trying to tell me something. Maybe He didn't want me writing sci-fi. Maybe He wanted me to write something in which He was a central character. Now up to that point I read sci-fi / fantasy exclusively - the only Christian fiction I had ever read was Frank Peretti and the first of the Left Behind books. But I had an idea for a contemporary Christian book - just the opening scene - so I wrote it. I sent it to my first reader (who is also my biggest encourager - my mother) and she loved it. Then I got involved in a big job at work and didn't write anything again for over a year. My mother bugged me that entire time to "finish that story!"
LL: Thank God for mothers! Did you finish it? How long did it take?
VS: In December of 2003, I sat down and finished the book - in 45 days. All those years of trying to sell sci-fi / fantasy had taught me a lot about approaching editors, so I went to a Christian writing conference and pitched the book to 4 publishers - and received 4 invitations to submit! Within 3 months of finishing the first draft of that novel, I received the incredibly good news that Kregel Publications was interested in my book! A few months later, I signed my first book contract. Just As I Am will be in bookstores this coming winter (2005).
LL: Congratulations!! That is a great success. Please tell us more about this book. You said Just As I Am is a contemporary Christian novel? What is it about? How would you define your potential audience?
VS: The book is Chick Lit - think Bridget Jones' Diary with a Christian perspective. The viewpoint character is a 22-year-old woman with purple hair and multiple facial piercings who becomes a Christian when she answers an altar call in her mama's little central Kentucky church. The story follows Mayla Strong as the Lord changes her from the inside out. You can imagine how the church people react to her, and also what her partying friends think of the new Mayla! There are lots of laugh-out-loud scenes involving her attempt to find her place of service in the church.
But Mayla deals with some really contemporary issues as well. Her first "Christian good deed" is to befriend a man dying of AIDS, and later on she encounters someone who has been seriously hurt by church-going parents.
LL: This sounds very interesting! I can already see a purple-haired young lady entering your traditional small town church… How did you create Mayla? You said you had the opening scene, but what about the rest? Is she based on a real life person you've met?
VS: Mayla is not modeled after anyone I know, but she does share some of my own characteristics. Not the purple hair or pierced lip, but her struggles to understand why God would lead her into situations where she must reach out to people who are hurting in a serious way. The AIDS issue is dear to my heart, because I have a friend who is HIV positive, and I've watched him struggle with rejection from people in his church. And I was a victim of child abuse, so Mayla's outrage when she encounters that is my own. I wanted to write a character who takes Jesus into situations like that, because they're very real in the world in which we live.
LL: Is Mayla's story completed in this book or is there going to be a sequel?
VS:Just As I Am is a complete book in itself, but I've already turned in a sequel. This time Mayla struggles with some new contemporary issues, including teenage pregnancy and abortion. My editor has indicated that, depending on the response to the first book, there may be a market for several more Mayla books. Our society certainly has lots of issues for Mayla to tackle!
LL: Since you have mentioned that your primary interest is science fiction and fantasy, I absolutely must ask you this: what do you think of Christian fantasy? Is there such a genre? Some people hold the opinion that fantasy cannot be Christian by definition, because of the presence of magic, wizards, and other things like that. What is your take on it?
VS: There is definitely a market for Christian fantasy! One of the greatest fantasy series of all times is C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles Of Narnia, and who can argue with the popularity of Frank Peretti's books? In the past few years some new Christian fantasy authors have emerged, too, such as Donita K. Paul (Dragonspell), Linda Wichman (Legend of the Emerald Rose) and Bryan Davis (the Dragons in our Midst series). None of these books are contrary to Christian beliefs or Biblical truths.
I do think the market is limited, though, as is the secular sci-fi / fantasy market. A walk through any bookstore to examine the shelf space allocated to speculative fiction demonstrates that. Publishers are only going to take a chance with the really top-notch stories that are excellently written.
LL: And what about your own science fiction and fantasy works? You said you have two completed novels, do you have any plans / hopes to have them published?
VS: Absolutely, but I'm going to stick to Christian fiction no matter what genre. In fact, I had a meeting with my editor from Kregel Publications recently, and I "pitched" the idea from one of those previously written novels - a Christian fantasy novel with sci-fi elements. He loved the idea, and asked me to put together a proposal with the first 3 chapters. Of course, I also pitched 2 more southern chick lit ideas, and he wants to take a look at those as well. I'm having too much fun writing humorous contemporary fiction to go back to sci-fi / fantasy exclusively!
But one final thing happened that's worth mentioning. After I finished my chick lit novel, while I was working on getting that book contract, I wrote another short story - a Christian sci-fi story. That story sold to an online e-zine. I then sold reprint rights to a Canadian print magazine. And then I got a notice in the mail that the story had been picked up for an anthology! So my first real fiction sale was sci-fi after all - Christian sci-fi - and it was published three times! Isn't God good?!?!?!
LL: He certainly is, and it looks like He is opening the door for your sci-fi and fantasy efforts as well. Is it hard to keep the spiritual focus of the story and at the same time make sure it is not "preachy?"
VS: You know, I've worried about Just As I Am being perceived as "preachy" because Mayla's developing relationship with the Lord is central to the plot and always at the forefront of the story. In fact, that is the story. But I've been told that people are drawn to Mayla because she's such a genuine character, and the plot is so realistic. No one has accused me of being preachy, thank goodness.
I think good Christian fiction of any genre should tell a great story from a Christian worldview. I once heard a Christian author say, "If you set out to write your book with the idea Here's the lesson I want to teach my readers, you might as well shut down your computer and walk away." Our writing becomes preachy when our objective is to teach a lesson instead of telling a story. My aim as a writer is to tell great stories that honor God and entertain people.
LL: Who are your favorite authors and why?
VS: I have about a gazillion favorite authors. Kristin Billerbeck is my favorite Christian chick lit author because her writing is smooth and her stories are well-paced, and she makes me laugh out loud. I also like Randall Ingermanson because his ideas are fascinating and his books are thoroughly researched and believable, even when I don't understand the science behind them. In secular sci-fi / fantasy, I have always loved Anne McCaffrey because the worlds she creates are vivid and real, and her characters are so well-defined that I can easily identify with them and place myself firmly in the story. And I love Deb Raney, Colleen Coble, Sharon Dunn, Robin Jones Gunn ... I could go on and on!
LL: When you read, are you able to turn off the writer in you and enjoy the book as a reader or are you always looking at how it's done, what plot devices are used, etc.?
VS: I'm always critiquing! I define a good story as one that captures me so deeply that I don't notice any of those things. But even then, I like to spend a few minutes analyzing those books after I finish them, to pinpoint exactly why I liked them so much.
LL: Does writing come easy to you? Do you struggle with certain parts or scenes in your story? Are you familiar with writer's block?
VS: I'm happy to say I've never had a severe case of writer's block, where I couldn't write anything for weeks or months. But many times I reached a point in my work where I had no idea where to go from there. At those times I sit back and say, "Ok, Lord, I need your help here. What happens next?" I've found that I can switch gears and work on something else for a little while - a nonfiction article, another story, even a newsletter - and when I return to the original story, invariably I can get over the bump and continue.
I think it was Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird who said the only way to overcome writers block is to write. I agree with that. What you write doesn't matter, you just have to start writing. The actual act of writing primes the pump, so to speak, and gets those creative juices flowing.
LL: What would you like to say to your readers and those who, after reading this interview, are possibly considering buying your books?
VS: I'd like to say THANK YOU! I pray for my readers, that they'll get a glimpse of God's grace and mercy in the stories I write and the worlds I create. And that they laugh occasionally, too. I hope when they turn the final page, they say to themselves, "That was a good book!"
LL: Thank you, Virginia, and may God bless your work!
The interview was taken in August 2005, by Laura Lond.