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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Spotlight on Virginia Smith

It's Tuesday again, and you know what that means. Time for another author spotlight. Maybe once I get back on track again with a routine, I'll get around to developing the rest of my blog goals. :) For now, at least I can keep this schedule.

And today, we have a very special guest. An author who packs a lot of insight and biblical wisdom and encouragement into both her books and her words. You won't want to miss what she has to share, and make sure you also read her personal post to follow this one.

Don't forget to leave a comment on this interview or Ginny's post to be entered into the drawing for a chance to win a FREE AUTOGRAPHED COPY of JUST AS I AM.

1. Your debut novel features a rather misfit-type heroine, and you seem to be somewhat of a misfit yourself with your love for daring adventure. How much of your own experiences influenced the character of Mayla? What aspects of Mayla became traits that were hers and hers alone?

Until you asked that question, I had never considered that aspect of my personality as one I share with Mayla! But now that I think about it, I was raised to believe that I am unique, that God has a unique plan for my life and tasks for me that can’t be done by anyone else. I had a troubled childhood, so that belief is what kept me going and formed a lot of my personality. And it became the foundation of my belief in a personal God, one who would have died for me even if I was the only person in the entire world who needed to be saved. That’s the relationship I wanted to portray between Mayla and the Lord, a very personal one. And I wanted to show her as unique, as not like anyone else. In fact, my working title as I wrote the book was,
"Uniquely Mayla," taken from a line where her pastor tells her, "Act like Jesus is right there with you. He is, you know, and if you let Him, He’ll help you to act in a way that honors Him but is still uniquely Mayla."

Though the book is not autobiographical, many of Mayla’s questions and thoughts are my own. I’ve never had a desire to pierce my nose, but I’ve really wanted a tattoo - a cute little dragon in the small of my back! I’ve satisfied the urge with those temporary ones, but I do understand some of Mayla’s wacky desire to do something out of the norm. On a more serious side, some of her experiences, such as the suspicious and even angry reactions of her friends to her Christianity, are things I’ve experienced myself. Others I’ve never encountered, like her open and honest friendship with a man dying of AIDS. But if I ever do, I hope I handle myself with the same grace and love as Mayla.

2. Just As I Am deals with a common experience among those who come to their new life in Christ when they're older as opposed to children. What was your most difficult part to write? Your favorite?

The most difficult part to write had to be Sylvia’s conversion. And yet, that’s also one of my favorite parts of the book. I can never read it without getting tears in my eyes. That’s because if there is any character in that book who is autobiographical, it’s Sylvia. I never blamed God for the bad things that happened to me, but Sylvia didn’t have a personal relationship with the Lord, so she did. Sylvia is who I would have become if I hadn’t come to know the Lord at age 12.

Probably the easiest part to write and the part I love to read aloud is the opening scene, Mayla’s baptism. She is completely ignorant of anything ‘churchy,’ and that makes for some really funny misunderstandings. Plus, readers get a glimpse of her relationship with her mama, and that’s one of the things of which I’m most pleased.

3. What themes exist in in Just As I Am that you hope the reader sees? Are there any themes that weren't overt but developed as the story progressed?

I approach a discussion about this book’s themes with a little bit of hesitation. That’s because I didn’t set out to write a book with a theme. I wanted to write a book that was funny and entertaining and realistic. When readers turned the last page, I wanted them to sit back with a sigh and say, "Man! That was a good book!"

But when the book was written and I read it with fresh eyes, I was astounded to realize that sometime during the crafting of the story, a theme had developed. And that theme was this: God loves each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, no matter where we are, no matter how ugly or horrible or despicable our actions. He loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us, so He could spend eternity with us by his side.

One thing I really enjoyed was Mayla’s developing relationship with Mr. Holmes’ and the way she got past his judgmental attitude about her looks. I think there’s a message in there to those people who find themselves on the receiving end of a judgmental attitude – when we take our focus off of ourselves and put it on others, they’ll respond.
4. You also speak to women's groups on a variety of topics. Which themes can also be found in Just As I Am and will we see those that aren't in future stories?

Some of my talks are just plain fun, as I hope my books are. I have one called, "Spiritual Truth in Star Trek," where I show video clips and then draw Biblical comparisons. I actually wear a Star Trek uniform, and that always goes over well. (No, I don’t speak Klingon.) One of the things I discuss in that talk is the sense of community in the body of Christ – we each have our role and we depend upon one another, just like the members of the starship Enterprise. Shades of that theme show up in my upcoming cozy mystery, Murder by Mushroom.

One of the hardest but most profound talks I give is called "Rumplestiltskin: A story of grace." I parallel my experiences as a victim of child abuse to the story of the Miller’s Daughter who tried and tried, but couldn’t spin straw into gold. I’ve given this talk to women in prison, because so many of those ladies have similar backgrounds to mine. I’ve also written an article on the topic for Today’s Christian called "Forgiving my Abuser." Forgiveness is a major theme my life, and shows up in every book I write to some degree.

5. Describe your writing space and schedule. How many words per day do you write and do you have a minimum goal you hope to reach before you push away your keyboard?

My office in Salt Lake City (I spend half the year there and the other half in Kentucky) is on the second floor of our townhouse. My desk (ergonomically correct!) is beside a window looking out over the stunning Wasatch Mountains. In fact, I can glance out my window and see the mountain where Charlton Heston was filmed coming down off Mount Sinai in the film, "The Ten Commandments." Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?

Writing is my job. When I’m working on a book, I go to my desk at around 8:30 in the morning and stay there until 4:00 or 4:30 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. My daughter and I go to the gym together around 4:30, but if something happens to prevent her from leaving work on time, I’ll skip the gym too (ANY excuse to skip the gym!) and keep writing until 5:30 or 6:00. I can usually write between 2000 and 2500 words during that time, as long as I don’t get sidetracked answering e-mail. The most words I’ve ever written in a single day was 5000, but that sure doesn’t happen very often!
6. Are you a SOTP (seat-of-the-pants) writer or a plotter? Or do you possess a blend of both?

I’m still trying to figure that out! Just As I Am was written SOTP. The sequel to that book (working title Pierced to the Heart) was started SOTP but mid-way through, I got stuck. So I made a high-level scene-by-scene outline and finished by working from that. When I was invited to submit a cozy mystery to Steeple Hill, I knew I had to plan the plot at a much more detailed level than I had ever done. It’s so important in a mystery to know when you’re going to drop clues and things like that. So with Murder by Mushroom I wrote the first chapter and then developed a detailed outline. The book I’m working on now is also a cozy, so I’m using the same process. But I have another chick lit series in proposal format at the moment, and that has only a high-level synopsis and three chapters – no detailed scene-by-scene plot.

7. How important do you believe it is for a new writer or even an established one to join a writing group such as ACFW?

I think it’s critical, for several reasons. Obviously we all need to continue striving to improve our craft, and groups like ACFW offer many opportunities to do that. Making contacts with agents and publishers is vital if your goal is publication, and professional writing groups make that possible. (Example: I pitched Murder by Mushroom to Steeple Hill at last year’s ACFW conference, and got the good news that they were issuing a contract the following January.)

But perhaps the biggest advantage of a group like ACFW is the fellowship with other writers who understand our desires and dreams and goals. Writing is a solitary profession, but for the most part writers love people. We need to surround ourselves with others like us to keep us sane!

8. When is your next book coming out and what is the story?

Murder by Mushroom will be released next summer from Steeple Hill. Here’s the pitch:

A kitchen klutz decides to bring something other than potato chips to the church potluck. She knows she’s not a great cook, but nobody’s ever died from her cooking … until now.

9. Anything else you wish to share?

I tried for so many years to publish – almost twenty! – and could never break through that publication barrier. I collected almost 150 rejection slips, so I call myself the Queen of Rejection. (I’m also the Queen of Excel, but that’s a different story!) Then I finally realized that I had been using the gift God gave me to satisfy myself instead of offering it to Him. When I gave it all back to Him and promised to write only books that honored Him directly, I made my first professional sale. The mailman started bringing acceptance letters instead of rejections. I started selling articles to Christian magazines, and even sold a Christian science fiction short story that was anthologized. My novel sold within 3 months after I finished it. I may have a hard head, but that message came through loud and clear! God wanted me writing for Him, and not for myself.

During a radio interview last month the interviewer asked me a question that made me think. She asked if I could have written Just As I Am 20 years ago. The answer is no, absolutely not. All those years of rejection were spent learning the craft. And they were also spent growing in spiritual maturity. Every single experience I have had in my life, personal and professional, has made me a better writer.

So my advice to aspiring writers is this: keep trying! Don’t give up. The same God who formed the universe is forming you into the writer He wants you to be. Embrace life, and let Him mold you.


Anonymous said...

"Just As I Am", is delightful, heartwarming, and thought provoking. I can't wait for the sequel!

Virginia Smith said...

Yeah, Susie, you and me both!