Author Interview ~Pam Lewis

Pam Lewis lives in rural Connecticut with her husband, Rob Funk. Her lifelong fascination with water and with family secrets is at the root of Perfect Family. Since 1991, she has worked as a freelance writer of business and marketing communications. She is the author of the novel, Speak Softly, She Can Hear. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and various literary magazines.

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Tell us a little about your latest release:

When 24-year old Pony Carteret — ace swimmer — is found drowned at the family summer home, her bizarre death rips apart her staid New England family and unearths secrets thought long buried by their keepers. William, Pony’s older brother cannot accept that her death was an accident. Confronted by the family’s well kept tapestry of perfection, William uncovers the circumstances of his sister’s death, the truth of his own birth and a dangerous secret his mother has kept hidden for a generation.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

I grew up moving to cities and suburbs all over the country. In each new place , I was intrigued by the great houses in the wealthier sections — fortresslike houses with big sweeps of lawn, impeccable landscaping and never anyone to be seen. I found these houses so intimidating. They seemed to me, even at a young age a façade, and to fill a need people had to put a great structure between themselves and everyone else. So yes, there was a sort of “what if” moment. What if the people in those house were protecting a secret not just from the world but also from each other. What would it take to shake that secret loose, and what would happen to all of them as a result?

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

William sees himself as an average guy, the son of above-average parents and outside the loop of his three younger sisters. So he’s a loner with a longing to fit in alienated and , now in his 30s, cynical about his family. His strongest familial attachments are to his eccentric aunt Minerva and to his sister, Pony, whose death affects him very deeply. I’m very attached to William, having myself been the daughter of a tough and fairly cold father. Writing is always an exploration and in many ways, a self exploration, so perhaps I was finding out what it might have taken to force my own father into a confrontation.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

I love starting a book, and this one was no exception. It’s very exciting to have the characters flesh out in my imagination, to wake up in the wee hours and start thinking about them right away. And then to set them all into motion, with a sense of where they’re headed and what will happen. The middle is always much more difficult. It’s daunting to be in the middle of a novel when all those parts I’ve let loose needs to be drawn in and managed and begin to be directed toward an ending. I felt much better about this when I was talking to my agent about it. She laughed and said, “Oh yes, like you’re Mark Twain and in the middle of writing Huckleberry Finn you forget which way the river runs.”

What made you start writing?

I don’t know what made me start writing. I’ve always done it. It was fun for me. A release, a place to be clever. I used to write nonfiction. I loved seeing my name on articles. Then I began writing fiction and it took much longer to be published.

What does your writing space look like? (Insert picture if possible)

My workspace (seen here in all its cluttered glory) is in the room on the ground floor of our house in the woods. I look out over a small span of lawn, down into a swale and as I write this, there is a herd of deer in the swale, several of them lying down looking exhausted. I’m guessing these are pregnant females who will give birth in a week or two. There are also wild turkeys who cross in front of the window, raccoons, the occasional coyote and some resident barred owls I like to talk to, now that I’ve learned the rhythm, which is “Who COOKS for you.”

What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?

I work out. I go up to the gym and get on the elliptical trainer and the treadmill with my iPod and listen to books on tape. If the weather is nice I hike or take long walks around where I live. And I read, of course. But I think it’s time to get involved in a volunteer activity like Habitat for Humanity. Writing is such a solitary existence, and too often when I work or volunteer, the jobs turn out to be more writing, so I’m looking forward to doing something with no relation to writing whatever. Hammering houses together sound like a good plan.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

I work out. I go up to the gym and get on the elliptical trainer and the treadmill with my iPod and listen to books on tape. If the weather is nice I hike or take long walks around where I live. And I read, of course. But I think it’s time to get involved in a volunteer activity like Habitat for Humanity. Writing is such a solitary existence, and too often when I work or volunteer, the jobs turn out to be more writing, so I’m looking forward to doing something with no relation to writing whatever. Hammering houses together sound like a good plan.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

I’m in all my characters. Parts of me, experiences I’ve had. Many outdoor experiences find their way into my books. Hiking, trekking and particularly the wilderness training I’ve had that teaches you what to do in a wilderness emergency and also happens to scare the bejesus out of me.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

I’m in all my characters. Parts of me, experiences I’ve had. Many outdoor experiences find their way into my books. Hiking, trekking and particularly the wilderness training I’ve had that teaches you what to do in a wilderness emergency and also happens to scare the bejesus out of me.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.
My novels begin with images. In the case of Perfect Family, that image was of a woman drowning because her long hair had become caught in something deep under water, a terrifying idea for me that I couldn’t shake. And then I had another image, of a grand house in a tony suburb as well as the image of a particularly grueling whitewater trip I’d taken once in Idaho. After that, I fleshed out the woman and then her family and that’s when I came upon William as the main character for telling the story. But it’s a little like a dream for me, with very vivid pictures and not very clear connections. The connections, then, are my job to make. And pin down and tame into a cohesive story.

I revise constantly as I write. The computer makes this so easy. I write one day, reread the next and can tell if something sticks or not. If it doesn’t out it goes. The best is when I’ve forgotten a scene and reread it fresh. It’s so much easier to know what works and what doesn’t I can spend days working on just a few pages. Once the novel I draft is done, I revise two or three more times myself and then may revise the whole again depending on what my editor has to say.

What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?

Ah, my favorite books include Drop City by T.C. Boyle which I found laugh–out-loud funny and completely absorbing. I have a deep affection for a short story collection by Tobias Wolf called In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. I admire his honesty in everything he writes. And right now I’m reading the Blake Bailey biography, Cheever, and I have every intention of going back to reread Falconer, a book that stuck me powerfully at the time he wrote it. And for structure, I’ve always loved Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Oh, and Alice Munro Is another favorite. Her short stories are both quiet and pack a punch.

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

Early in my career, I wish I’d believed the people who said the best way to learn to write was to write. After having written two books and now being on the third I understand the wisdom in this. The more you do of it, the more you learn. Keep pushing out those books. Show them to people, get feedback from people you trust and then act on that feedback.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

I don’t do enough marketing because I’m not sure how to go about it. I have a website and anyone to whom I send an email gets the link. I talk about my writing on Facebook. I read whenever I have the chance. This is an area I wish I knew more about.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

I’m at work on a novel whose working title is Minke set in the early 1900s about a young girl in a small Dutch town who is swept away by a much older man and taken to the frontier town of Comodoro Rivadavia in Argentina where her baby is kidnapped. It’s taking a load of research, but I’m enjoying that part of it a lot.

Lynette Sowell on Setting – More Than a Stage

Lynette Sowell’s books have taken her to northern California, the 1800s Louisiana bayou, nineteenth century Wyoming, contemporary New York City, and most recently to Tennessee, the setting of her cozy mystery series published by Barbour. The Wiles of Watermelon is her most recent novel. In late summer 2009, she looks forward to taking readers to the Gilded Age of Newport, Rhode Island. You can learn more about Lynette and her books at her website.

Setting: More Than Your Book’s Stage

When you decide to write a book, how do you know where it’ll take place? Is it somewhere you know, or someplace you’ve always wanted to visit? Or are you tired of reading books that could take place anywhere? Maybe the setting doesn’t seem to matter or may seem an afterthought.

We who are newer authors are trying to discover that bigger book inside that begs us to write it, and we want to find our niche somewhere on the bookstore shelves. We need to think carefully about where we set our books. One of the questions editors want answered is where you’ve set your story.

For example, I considered setting a future book in Texas. I shared my idea with an editor. Her response? “Oh, that sounds good. But could you find a setting besides Texas? I’ve seen quite a few Texas proposals lately.”

Like many writers, part of me moaned inwardly, “But I love Texas. Books set in Texas are selling, because I’ve seen plenty of them on the shelves.” Which may be true. But our job as writers is to find something fresh in our setting, even in a setting that’s been used hundreds of times. That special twist will make our book stand out from the crowd.

The tricky part about writing is it’s both art and business. We’re passionate about our book, as we should be. But passion isn’t always enough to sell a book, especially if an editor has half a dozen (or more) manuscripts set in the identical location as our book. This is the time to think business. How will your proposal compare to the others on that editor’s desk? You can’t really know. But we do want to give our readers an experience with familiar elements, yet one that also contains the unexpected.

For example, my family and I have taken quite a few road trips over the years, from the Rocky Mountains to the Texas Gulf Coast, and over to Tennessee. While traveling, we saw Wal-Mart signs as beacons in unfamiliar surroundings. With Wal-Mart, we pretty much knew what to expect when we walked through the doors. As travelers with children, we liked this a lot.

But we also liked to wander through local flea markets or dusty shops to hunt for treasures that aren’t stamped “made in China.” We stopped for lunch at restaurants with parking lots filled with vehicles of local residents. When we bypassed the golden arches, we found unique experiences that we didn’t discover anywhere else.

The same applies to our search for the right setting. It’s okay to have familiar elements that editors expect. Remember, though, that editors aren’t looking for the same thing they’ve seen before in each town they’ve passed through. Take time to evaluate your story. Go off that well-worn path and don’t stop at the first place that everyone knows.

Which is why you should investigate the where of your story to find that unique, unexpected element. Searching for that nugget involves research and sifting through available information. If you can, visit your setting. Take pictures. Imagine your character in that place.

Maybe you can’t travel to your setting. Make the Internet your ally. Read local newspapers, visit local on-line forums, and check out the Chamber of Commerce for your particular town. If you’re brave and careful, visit on-line photo sites and search for photos labeled with your setting. If you’re creating a fictitious town, your job may be a little easier—you can combine the flavors of a locale and use that to spice up your book’s setting.

Now that we’re at the end of our time together, let’s resolve to take that passion for our books, and use that energy to discover something unique about our setting. After all, we want to take our readers on an amazing trip they can’t experience anywhere else.

Newlywed Andi Hartley is not at all sure she’s ready to look like an over-ripe melon. . .

In fact, she’s still getting used to being married. But her husband, Ben, wants to start a family right away. Gulp. Their family plans are put on hold, however, when Andi’s kitten runs from the house to their watermelon field and digs up a bone attached to the remains of a thirty-year-old skeleton. Buried secrets come to life. . .and then the colorful owner of Greenburg’s best eatery is murdered. As Andi unearths more and more of the suspicious history surrounding the skeleton, she realizes both deaths are related. Is she also about to unearth a murderer?

Should Christian Fiction Specialize in Hope?

by Mike Duran

Thanks to Jessica Dotta, for the heads up on this. From the article in The Tennessean, Christian fiction thrives during economic crisis:

Local Christian publishers who launched or expanded their fiction lines in recent years are enjoying the fruits of their labors thanks to an unlikely source — the flagging economy.

While sales of Christian nonfiction have stalled during the recent economic crisis, sales of Christian fiction remain strong.

Karen Ball, executive editor at Southern Baptist-owned B&H Publishing Group, said that people are looking for a way to escape from the bad news of layoffs and plummeting stocks. “When reality gets ugly, fiction takes off,” she said.

Along with escape, Christian novels specialize in Christian hope.

“There’s some wonderful secular fiction out there, but it’s not offering any hope,” Ball said. “If anything it’s discouraging. In Christian fiction, there’s hope in the midst of trouble.” (Emphasis mine)

Framing Christian fiction as an agent of hope — perhaps the only fiction “offering any [real] hope” — is interesting, and I think captures the essence of what many readers expect from the genre. They want something uplifting, redemptive, inspirational, encouraging, and/or ultimately optimistic. But specializing in hope has its pros and cons.

Some Christians authors will, no doubt, hedge at that suggestion. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with offering hope to a dying world? Isn’t that what the Gospel message is intended to do? After all, people shouldn’t approach Christian fiction expecting to be bummed out or dejected. Nevertheless, being consistently hopeful — especially as it relates to storytelling — has its downside.

One problem with defining Christian fiction in terms of hope is predictability. In other words, if readers buy Christian fiction to feel good and extract hope, then no matter how bleak a storyline, they should always expect a somewhat uplifting resolution. Not only does this expectation handicap the genre (i.e., most conclusions are foreseeable), it hamstrings Christian fiction writers into more conventional plotlines. Furthermore, an overly optimistic angle whitewashes the failings and pitfalls of our lives and faith. We are forced to frame the Christian experience as inevitably rosy, and ignore the ambiguity, regrets and ruin that sometimes befall followers of Christ. While Christian fiction should provide hope, it should also be artistically free to explore the realisms of life with and without God. In fact, it is this grim reality that often spurs one on to a less superficial search for answers.

There are many stories in the Bible that are not manifestly hopeful. Take the Book of Judges. The recurrent phrase in this Old Testament book is “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” The result? Bad men ruled them, and the nation suffered. The consequences of sin are as much a part of the Christian worldview as is the hope of redemption. But the Christian novelist who seeks to leave their reader with just that conclusion (i.e., that narcissism, self-indulgence, egoism and gluttony lead to ruin) will have a hard sell in today’s religious market. In other words, by specializing in hope are we unintentionally downplaying or ignoring other equally relevant themes in the Gospel?

So specializing in hope has its downside, one that authors and readers should genuinely consider.

On the other hand, there are good reasons why readers migrate towards Christian fiction during difficult times. For when it comes to hope, Christianity trumps all other worldviews. Of course, this statment will not sit well with the PC police. But the fact is, without God, there can be no real hope. With every terrorist bombing and nuclear sub, the utopia of humanistic conspirations gets more and more laughable. Atheism offers nothing beyond a vapid existential buzz before eternal evaporation. Hinduism proffers an impersonal karmic cycle when, after millions of migrations, we merge with the Soul of the Cosmos. Like it or not, the biblical worlview is philosophically congruent, jibes with the state of things, and unlike humanism, atheism, and Hinduism, is practically applicable to the human plight. No wonder people seek out Christian fiction during troubled times!

In the article above, editor Karen Ball notes, “There’s some wonderful secular fiction out there, but it’s not offering any hope.” This observation is not unique to readers and publishers of religious fiction. Some have suggested that this years’ Academy Award juggernaut, Slumdog Millionaire, was riding the reactionary tide against last years’ incredibly dark Best Film nominees. In other words, filmgoers wanted hope. Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and the ultimate Academy selection, No Country for Old Men, were all pretty grim fare. I liked all of those movies, yet it’s hard to not feel crappy after seeing them. (This is also why many feel that a better film, The Dark Knight, was virtually snubbed at this years’ Oscars — it was just too dark.) While Slumdog has its dark elements, it is ultimately buoyant. (But as I suggested in another post, even though the film took place in the dregs of the Hindu caste slums, it had to appeal to a more transcendent element, i.e., Destiny, to invoke hope.) Obviously, people are sick of bad news. We need to see a movie with a bang-up dance sequence once in a while.

But back to my point: People choose Christian fiction because it is more naturally grounded in hope than secular fiction. Humanism offers me no real hope. Atheism offers me no real hope. Hinduism offers me no real hope. But if the tomb of the crucified Nazarene is really empty, I’ve got a pretty good reason to end my book with a bang-up dance sequence.

Specializing in hope is a tightrope that authors of Christian fiction must walk with the utmost care. While making our characters live happily-ever-after may satisfy both audience and editor, more often than not it can become contrived and predictable. Not to mention, unbiblical. After all, the hope supplied by Christian fiction must be far more than just a happy ending.