When did you decide to be a writer?
When I was in 8th grade, I read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I absolutely loved the book! It astounded me to see the tremendous power of words, that what moved my heart had actually changed the heart of a nation. I wanted to write like that!
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?
Even today, after 36 books, that is a challenge. I want everyone to love everything I write. Of course, that isn’t going to happen. Especially when I write about social justice issues. I never want to get to the place where I stop listening to others. But, yes, the time did come when I finally had enough confidence in my own writing to say, “I will listen and consider, but in the end this is my work. It’s my responsibility.”
Are you a disciplined writer or do you just write when you feel like it?
I am a disciplined writer. I make outlines, then I sit down and write. People always ask me what I do to get around writers’ block. I say: What does a dentist do if he has dentist’s block? He goes to work and works on teeth! Same with me. I go to work and write.
What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?
My husband and I invested in a hot tub spa. Every morning we luxuriate in it and read, and talk about our day. It is the number one relaxation in my life! I also walk, and I pause in the afternoon for a tea break.
What is your favorite novel and what made it special?
That is so hard to say! My favorites are all over the board. But I guess I would have to say The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens because it lit my writing passion fire. Most of my life I have written non-fiction, but I love the power of fiction to bring a social issues to blazing life.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
Oh, yes! Let me count the ways! I so enjoy the way John Irving turns a powerful phrase in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I love the way C.S. Lewis layers the story meaning in his Chronicles of Narnia. I love the evidence of the depths of research in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks….
Tell us a little about your latest release:
The Call of Zulina, Book 1 of the Grace in Africa trilogy, is set in Africa at the height of the slave trade. It circles around Grace Winslow, daughter of a mixed marriage between an English slave ship captain and an African princess. Grace escapes an arranged marriage to a repulsive white slave trader only to run head-long into a slave rebellion. Only then does she realize the truth of her family’s business—the capture and trade of slaves. She must decide who she is and on which side she will stand—slave or slave holder. Leaning on the faith of the slave who raised her, Grace risks everything to follow her heart.
Book 2, The Voyage of Grace, is set mainly in London. It comes out in August.
Book 3, The Triumph of Grace, set mainly on the Southern plantations of the fledgling United States, will be available in Spring 2011.
Where did you get your inspiration for The Call of Zulina?
While I was in West Africa working on another project, I toured an old slave fortress and was struck dumb by a set of baby-sized manacles bolted to the wall. At the same time, I was researching Once Blind: The Life of John Newton, a book about the author of Amazing Grace, a slaver turned preacher and abolitionist. For awhile he was held captive by an Englishman and his African wife who ran a slave business. I couldn’t help but wonder, “If those two had a daughter, would she be English or African? Where would her loyalties lie?” That’s where the story was born. The imagined daughter became Grace. The characters of Lingongo and Joseph Winslow, her parents, are modeled after that real-life couple.
Which character is most like you?
Grace Winslow. On several levels, she had one foot in each of two worlds and had to make really hard decisions about who she would be and which direction her life would take. She starts out quite naive and self-absorbed… something I can relate to. I pray that I, too, will follow a path that leads to a life that makes my time on this earth matter.
Who is your favorite character and why?
Grace, because she remind me who I would like to be.
Did you know how The Call of Zulina would turn out? Were you surprised by any of the plot twists or characters?
I did know how it would turn out because I write out a chapter-by-chapter outline before I ever start a book. (I’ve never ascribed to the idea that a character takes over. Hey, the characters are ours!) But, yes, I was surprised by some of the twists and characters that evolved. Most often because I would get to a point in the story where I would look at my outline and say, “Yes, but what if…?” And there would be a whole new cache of possibilities.
What is the main thing you hope readers remember from this story?
The slave trade was a defining part of our country’s history. We can try to ignore it—even pretend it never happened—but there it is. It helped to mold what we and our country have become.
What kinds of things have you done to market this book? Have you found anything that works particularly well?
Writing articles and speaking are the two most beneficial things, I think. Blog tours can really help, too. I think book signings are overrated. They take a lot of time for little impact.
Tell us what new projects you’re working on.
I am just starting another fiction trilogy, Blessings in India. It will follow two families through three generations, one a high caste family with a long Christian background and the other a Dalit—untouchable—family who are their virtual slaves. Book 1 will be out next year.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
If you want to be a writer, then write. Write and write and write some more. Everyone gets better and better. No one gets worse and worse.