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Crossing Over

November 19, 2010

No, I’m not dying. Well, in a sense I guess we’re all dying, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. This is my story about moving from the secular publishing world to the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association).

Some years ago, when my editor at Simon & Schuster said to me, “Julie, we don’t publish religious stuff,” I didn’t have the faintest notion of what to say back to her. I knew absolutely nothing about the CBA and I didn’t really think of my Homegrown series (Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes, ‘Mater Biscuit, and Those Pearly Gates) as religious. I liked to think of it more as ‘spiritual.’

The marketing department at S&S targeted the stories toward the gardening community. At the time, this was okay by me, because I never set out to write religious stories, and even now with two books in the chute for the CBA, I ask myself; “How in the world did I get into this business of writing Christian fiction?” Sometimes I even say to myself, “Isn’t writing Christian fiction the same as preaching to the choir?” I still haven’t read any of the how-to books out there on the subject of writing inspirational (CBA) fiction. I’m still not sure about a lot of stuff, and so I’m hoping to uncover some answers as I write this.

My family claims I’m hard-headed, a southern term for stubborn. What I’ve always desired is to tell my stories exactly the way I want to tell them. Mother says I was born telling stories and as soon as I could write, I was fashioning crude little books on things such as my dog, Roscoe, who loved to steal construction workers’ lunches from around our blossoming 1970’s neighborhood. Over the years, my English teachers put encouraging notes on my report cards, and for me, a particularly nerdy child (all knees, elbows, eyeglasses, braces, and stringy brown hair) it was a way to shine, to hold my head up a tiny bit even if I was picked last for teams at recess.

After high school I went to the University of Georgia where I earned a degree in Advertising from the Journalism school. I kept up my creative writing obsession, however, writing all sorts of awful stories and experimental poems. During my senior year, 1984, I became fascinated by the power of spiritual things because this was a time when I absolutely hit rock bottom and there was no way in this natural world I would have survived if not for being sustained by God’s mystical hand of mercy and huge amounts of grace (grace being defined as ‘God’s undeserved favor’).

Flannery O’Connor was right when she wrote, “Grace changes us and change is painful.” Flannery didn’t have an easy life. She earned a lot of spiritual wisdom as a young girl from witnessing the tragedy of her beloved father’s struggle with lupus, followed by his premature death and then her own diagnosis of lupus. As a devout Catholic, she wrote often about “Christ-haunted” characters, trying to portray them as they might be touched by divine grace in a created world charged with God.

I’m often asked where my story ideas come from, and I say that when I sit down to write, the story is the first thing on my agenda. I start out striving to write page-turners that folks can just fall into and forget their troubles for a while. But somehow my plots always seem to interweave themselves with spiritual themes – with many different angles of “the human condition” as it pertains to that mystical relationship between the Creator and the individual. At the core, the very center of my stories I inevitably find that those “truths” I’ve discovered along my life’s journey have just kind of slipped in. These are things to which I know I’m indebted and hence, about which I care passionately. It looks like there’s something inside me that absolutely has to share them, that feels this fierce need to offer readers hope in the midst of all the troubles they face in this crazy, capricious dance called Life. I want those whom the world mistreats or injures to see their true worth as children of the living, loving God.

It’s been almost 10 years since I published my first novel and still I’m excited when I get emails and notes from readers about it. It literally thrills me to hear from people who’ve been touched by Imogene’s story and her strength in the midst of grief; folks who’ve found a laugh, gained insight or hope or comfort or peace. Hearing from readers is the thing that gives me perspective. It’s easy to forget in the frenzy of writing, editing, and promoting – this business of putting words onto paper and into the world – how powerful words can be. As a writer, it’s not about how many thousands of copies you sell, or the 5-star reviews you collect, or your advance (though, let’s be honest; sometimes you DO have to worry about paying the mortgage and for the braces and a jug of milk.) It’s about touching people.

Looking back on my own reading history, I see some books that shaped my life. As a young teen I remember reading Christy, a novel by Catherine Marshall, set in the fictional Appalachian Village of Cutter Gap, Tennessee, in 1912. The soul of that novel touches me to this day, as does The Beloved Invader, by Eugenia Price, set on a Georgia plantation after the Civil War, and more recently, Jewell, by Brett Lott, a story I plan to read again and again so I can savor his lyrical prose along with his insights into human nature. I practically inhaled Anne Lamott’s devout but quirky book, Traveling Mercies; Some Thoughts on Faith, a narrative spiced with scripture and stories about her walk of faith how she came to believe in God, and hence, in herself.

I’ve always been fascinated by words; collecting bits of dialogue, plot ideas, and character descriptions and stuffing them into drawers and file folders. Just lately one morning, during my meditation time, I was reading Jeremiah 4:14 and I had to copy it down on an index card. I love God’s use of synesthesia (using one sense to describe another) here: “Behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them.”

Yes, words are powerful stuff. As far as synesthesia goes, it’s comforting to me to be compared to a tree in Jeremiah 17:7-8; “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (NRSV)

Recently I was talking about my cross-over to the CBA with my new editor at Abingdon Press, Barbara Scott, and she said “Terri Blackstock is a Christian who used to write in the secular world and now writes in the CBA.” I hung up the phone and went right to Terri’s website. I clicked on the word ‘About’ and read the opening line with interest. “Terri Blackstock hasn’t always written for the Lord. Just over a decade ago she was an award-winning secular novelist writing for publishers such as Harper Collins, Harlequin, and Silhouette . . . After much soul-searching and wrestling with God, she finally told the Lord that she would never write another thing that didn’t glorify Him. Thinking she might never be published again, she began planning ways to supplement her income, while she worked on her first idea for a Christian novel . . . “ You can read ‘the rest of the story’ at Terri’s website (TerriBlackstock.com).

Writing in any genre is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. But I feel it even more now that my agent has me firmly entrenched in the CBA. It sure isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of nerve and honesty. It requires a writer to look deep inside and expose their raw self. As far as my hard-headedness, my stubborn determination to write the way I want to – now that I’m writing in this genre, and since I know as a Believer “it’s not all about me,” and combining this knowledge with the fact that my stories can only be all about me (because my experiences and my world-view are all I have to mine my stories from) it can be sort of nerve-racking. And because I know I’m a lump of clay, a work in progress, and because I want to be sure I’m allowing His greatness to work for me and through me, I often have to take a deep breath, exhale, and pray, “Okay Lord, please rescue me from my tendency toward self-centeredness, give me a heart to share stories about your goodness, and language to speak it well.”

I still have so much I want to say and figure out about life, and by the grace of God I’ll continue to devote myself to the one thing I’ve loved to do since childhood – stringing words together to compose stories, stories that not only draw a reader away from their worldly troubles for a spell, but that also offer hope and comfort they can carry with them long after they close the book.

Truly, Julie

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