Your first novel, Safe at Home, dealt with the racial tension of the early 1950s in the setting of minor league baseball. This one follows that story chronologically, but is not set directly in the world of sports. What is it about this era in American history that keeps drawing you back?
This was a time when the country was fundamentally changed— when we saw righteousness confront evil—and righteousness won. It was a time when the courage of humble, anonymous, and powerless people overcame the self-interest of entrenched power. And it was the era when our understanding of justice was challenged and redefined. In the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln talked about a “new birth of freedom.” In many respects the civil rights era was, for people of every color, exactly that.
Both books feature “cameos” by historical figures. How did you go about researching their stories so you could present them in a believable light?
Well, I live in Martin Luther King’s hometown. I’ve been to his boyhood home several times, as well as to the civil rights museum that’s right down the road. I’ve roamed around Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father were copastors. I’ve been to Dexter Avenue Baptist and to the manse on South Jackson Street in Montgomery. These places are full of books, papers, documentary presentations, and important artifacts from the era. We have access to King’s speeches, sermons, and books. With a couple of clicks on YouTube, you can hear him speak, study his mannerisms, and be captivated by the rhythm of his oratory. So many of the people involved in this story left a thorough and very personal record. We have the columns and books written by Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore—their firsthand testimony through which we sense the tension of the times. This is one of the most thoroughly documented periods of American history, and I live within a few miles of the research library at Emory University where, it seems, every article ever written is at your fingertips.
What surprised you most as you did your research for Crossing the Lines?
I came away from the research and writing with enormous gratitude for the way Martin Luther King Jr. changed the hearts and minds of America’s white population. Here are a couple episodes that illustrate what I mean: Early in the book, when Jack asks King about the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott, King tells him that he hopes to awaken a sense of moral shame. He explains that the effort is ultimately about fellowship. The aftermath of it, he tells Jack, is redemption and reconciliation—a redeeming goodwill for all men. Most people, I suspect, think of “the movement” as being about rights for black people. I was surprised to learn that it was—thoroughly and from the very beginning—about justice for everyone. King’s concern was for a society in which every human could flourish. This twenty-six-year-old pastor recognized, in a thoroughly biblical way, the need for cross-cultural fellowship. He recognized that whites were just as impoverished as blacks by a segregated society. King saw that white people—especially those in power—needed to be freed from the restraints of a segregated society. There’s a point in the story where King tells Chris Hall that he’s not interested in ending segregation. The goal, he says, is integration—the creation of a “beloved community” of all God’s children. King was always mindful that no one could thrive until everyone had equal opportunity. Toward the end of the book, in Nashville, we see jailed black protesters refuse to pay bail, even after it’s been lowered to a token five dollars. Diane Nash, one of the black leaders, explains to Jack that their goal wasn’t to get out of jail; it was to transform an inequitable society. To pay bail, she pointed out, would be to participate in—and thereby perpetuate—an inherently evil system. Here again, the objective was all-encompassing. It was never about winning rights for a few, but rather, creating a righteous society for all. I was surprised by the nobility of the movement, and by the courage of the people who took part. Looking back, I see something very Christlike about the whole campaign. There was an intentional way in which these people suffered on behalf of those who persecuted them. They were beaten, arrested, and verbally abused for the sake of their enemies. To win freedom for everyone, they strove to enrich the lives of those who hated them. It’s interesting; this movement so thoroughly transformed American society, and yet it never insisted on a single fundamental change. Rather, it called on the country to embrace the principles of freedom and equality that it had always proclaimed. It simply asked Americans to be fully American. It didn’t demand that the church change; rather, it called on the church to embody the truths of Christ-centered community that it already preached. In other words, it asked the Christian church to become more Christian. To the extent that we still view this in black-white terms, it’s clear that white people were the primary beneficiaries. While the movement changed conditions for black people, it changed the hearts and minds of white people. Which gives us more to celebrate, and more to be grateful for. Many writers talk about novel writing as something of a discovery process—claiming the characters often take on a life of their own as they write. Did this happen for any of your characters, or did you know from the start how they would grow and respond throughout the story?
I don’t think any of the characters took on a life of their own, but I will say that character development in this story was … different. Fictional characters, like real ones, are defined by what they love and want most. We build characters around a single driving force and the tensions it naturally causes. But in this story the characters find themselves in this awkward, embarrassing in-between time. They’re proud Southerners, they have a stake in the “Southern way of life,” but the foundation’s cracking beneath them. They know that change is coming, but no one’s sure how to navigate through it. There’s an episode where Flannery O’Connor talks about the “grotesque characters” of Southern fiction. She explains that Southern writers live in this chimerical, Christ-haunted territory—this place where they’re forever confronted with the region’s failings. As a result, O’Connor explains, they, unlike writers from other regions, see the distance between “what is” and “what ought to be.” These characters embody that distance; they illustrate our deficiencies—as well as our longings. The grotesque character of this story is racial segregation. I hope, through what’s depicted here, readers see our still-lingering biases, as well as an always-emerging hope for the “beloved community.”
The novel doesn’t hide the ugly truths and the frequent missteps that marked the beginning of the civil rights movement, but it also presents a different picture of the South—a hopeful, culture-rich picture. What inspired you to capture both of these aspects of the South in the 1950s?
I needed to capture both because there’s a direct connection between them. And in the connection, there’s a vivid picture of our humanness: we’re brilliant, creative, and high-minded one moment—evil, oppressive, and hypocritical the next. It’s hard to believe that in the same era (generally speaking) when Faulkner was crafting works of genius, Martin Luther King Jr. was pleading for racial reconciliation. During the days when Sam Phillips was inventing rock and roll, when he was introducing the blues to a whole new audience, producing the music of B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett, Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley—black students were being jailed for ordering coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. As Flannery O’Connor penned enduring works of fiction, Georgia governor Marvin Griffin was vowing to stop the 1956 Sugar Bowl, to prevent Georgia Tech from playing a Pittsburgh team that fielded one “Negro” player. This was an era when Southerners were, at the same time, creating the very best of the world’s culture—and the worst. And the fact is, we’d have never had the one without the other. We now realize that: • It is because of our once segregated society that we now know the thoughts and theology of Martin Luther King Jr. • It was a long history of racial oppression that gave birth to the blues. • Without a history of racial strife, we would never be enriched by the “Christ-haunted” and guilt-inspired fiction of so many great Southern writers. The worst of Southern culture spawned the best. This is the paradox that sends Jack Hall down a career path he never envisioned.
What do you hope readers walk away with after reading Crossingthe Lines?
I always want people to walk away with an enjoyable reading experience. I want them to be delighted with the language—with its power to draw us into a story and stir our emotions. Beyond that, I hope readers come away admiring the courage of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Dian Nash, and hundreds of others who were responsible for the civil rights movement. And I hope they come away inspired—eager to create in their own neighborhoods and cities, with whatever tools are at hand—something that comes close to the biblical ideal of the “beloved community.”
Will you be revisiting the Hall family in any future novels? What writing plans and dreams do you have now that Crossing the Lines is on the bookshelves?
I don’t have any plans to revisit the Halls, but … you never say never. Right now I’m working on a story about a young woman—a singer from rural Georgia—who’s forced to contemplate the purpose of her extraordinary talent; to figure out why it’s been given to her, how it’s to be used, and the implications of fame and celebrity. We’ll see where it goes.
Use these questions to discuss Crossing the Lines in a reading group or simply to explore the story from a new perspective.
1. Describe the emotional “ride” you took as you read Crossing the Lines. What surprised you most as you read the story?
2. In what ways did you identify with Jack? With Rose Marie? Chris?
3. How did the story inspire you? Challenge you?
4. What about the characters or story made you angry or upset?
5. Although the novel is fiction, it’s based on true events and real people. How does this impact your reaction to Crossing the Lines?
6. How did the main characters grow as the story progressed? Who grew the most? What were the events that prompted that growth?
7. Which of the iconic characters in the novel did you find most compelling? According to the novel, what are some of the lasting effects of their influence? How does this compare to what you know of their actual stories?
8. What was your reaction to the ending of the story?
9. How did this story affect your view of the South during that turbulent time?
10. In what ways (if any) has this story changed you?
You Make Me Feel Like Dancing is the first of three novels in the Va Va Va Boom series. The “boom” refers to the baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964. Baby boomers today, of which approximately 38 million are women, represent 28 percent of the U.S. population. Boomer women are some of the healthiest, wealthiest, and best-educated women ever to hit midlife. Identified by the National Association of Baby Boomer Women as “faithful, loving, and hardworking women who multitask to survive,” members of this powerful sisterhood hail from various backgrounds and carry different baggage, but most share the desire to make a difference. It is for this stalwart demographic of vibrant women who want to make a difference that the author has written the Va Va Va Boom series. She welcomes you to discuss the questions below in your book clubs and to communicate directly with her via e-mail at AB@AllisonBottke.com.
1. What are some of the major themes of the book? Did the author effectively develop these themes? If so, how?
2. Is there anything in this story to which you can personally relate? Did you find yourself identifying with a particular character or characters? (You don’t need to be a baby boomer to enjoy the story!) Are there any ideas or advice you can apply to your own life?
3. Brought together in an online community known as Boomer Babes Rock, Susan, Patricia, Mary, and others form fast friendships even though they live in different parts of the country and lead completely different lives. Do you believe the close online friendships the author has described are likely or possible? What kinds of benefits or problems could stem from this special kind of relationship?
4. How important is the setting to the story? Did the setting of the novel detract or add to your enjoyment of the story? Did it raise any questions or concerns?
5. How effectively does the author portray the presence of spirituality in the characters’ everyday lives? Has she succeeded in presenting faith in a way that feels relevant and relatable? Are there specific characters whose beliefs resonate with yours?
6. One of the issues Susan faces in parts of this book is the tension of living “in the world” but not being “of the world”—that is, living in her culture without compromising her beliefs and being a credible witness to those who might not share those beliefs. Her particular “world” is flashy Las Vegas and the glitzy disco culture. Do you think she did a good job of living out her faith in that world? In what ways have you felt a tension between your faith and the culture you live in?
7. At several points in the novel, we see Susan wrestling with the ability to communicate openly with her husband. How does this issue apply to the story? How does it apply to your life?
8. Susan had the opportunity to fulfill one of her most important dreams, yet she was prepared to sacrifice that dream to save her marriage. Have you ever been called to sacrifice a cherished dream? Describe the experience and what (if anything) you learned from it.
9. The first three books in the Va Va Va Boom series feature Susan, Patricia, and Mary—three baby boomer women who are living, loving, and enjoying making a difference in their world. From what you have read so far, where do you think the author will take these women in subsequent books? What aspects of their experience are specifically “boomer” and what are more universal?
10. Each lead character in the Va Va Va Boom series owns her own business, representing a unique generation of women who have made choices to survive and thrive in sometimes difficult circumstances. Discuss some of the challenges Susan faced as a business owner and Loretta experienced as an employee.
11. Money plays a significant role—both positive and negative—in this book. What are some of the money issues that arise between Susan and Loretta, Susan and Michael, Susan and Lily, Ryan and his father, and others? How have money issues affected your own life and relationships and your spiritual journey?
12. Susan is a passionate, loving, faithful, trustworthy individual who, at midlife, is suddenly faced with making a choice destined to send her on an unexpected journey. What other choices could she have made? Have you ever been faced with the need to make a life-changing choice?
13. Susan had a painful secret in her past that held her prisoner for years. How would things have been different if she had fully disclosed everything to Michael years before? How can secrets hurt a relationship? Is there ever a time when maintaining a secret is the best thing to do?
14. What are your thoughts about Susan’s decision to not look for her daughter and about Michael’s choice to find her?
15. Story lines within the Va Va Va Boom series will address timely issues of special interest to the baby boomer demographic such as empty nesting, aging parents, menopause, divorce, widowhood, retirement, sexuality, Alzheimer’s, drug-addicted adult children, grandparenting, adoption, sexual abuse, bankruptcy, adultery, health, post-abortion stress syndrome, and more. Which of these issues would you most like to see the author address in subsequent books? Why?
16. What did you like or dislike about the book that hasn’t been discussed already? Were you glad you read this book? Would you recommend it to a friend? Do you want to read more works by this author? Why or why not?
In a charming outdoor bistro in Italy, a smiling woman sighs over the perfect espresso and gazes out toward the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this isn’t Bonnie Grove, who has never visited Italy nor laid eyes on the Mediterranean. In order to chat with Bonnie we must zip our down-filled parkas to the chin and trudge headlong into the northern winds to Canada. We find her huddled near the fireplace inside a Starbucks gulping a mochaccino and waving a pen high above her head. “Anyone have a rhyme for ‘igloo’?” she hollers into the crowd. She tosses the pen down. “Yeah, me neither. This is why I don’t write poetry.”
AfterWords Interviewer: So you’re no Sylvia Plath wannabe. We canlive with that. Tell us, why do you write?
Bonnie Grove: Oh man. I KNEW you’d ask that. I keep thinking I need to come up with a really good answer for that question. It’s on my to-do list.
AW: Uh … so you don’t know why you write?
BG: Oh sure I do. I just don’t know the exact words to explain it. It’s complicated. I didn’t start out to be a writer. I meant to be a psychologist. That’s the road I was on when I started writing. What drew me to psychology were the stories behind the human experiences. And what drew me to writing is the human experiences inside the stories. So, I don’t know if I’m a successful writer or a failed psychologist.
AW: That’s tough. No wonder you write about mental breakdowns.
BG: Tell me about it.
AW: Still, your background in psychology must have come in handywhile writing Talking to the Dead.
BG:Yes. I have a great deal of respect for the field. I’ve been privileged to sit with individuals, couples, and families while they try to put their lives into words; try to voice their experiences. In those sacred moments, I have felt God’s presence so near, so immediate it literally caused me to fall silent. And it’s that story—the story of God present in our immediate turmoil that I wanted to tell.
AW: That’s why the tagline on your Web site is “Life is messy, God islove”?
BG: Exactly. Hey, if you order the pumpkin muffin, I’ll share it with you.
AW: Uh, okay. Thanks, I guess.
BG: Anyway, yes. My life is messy (picks several pumpkin muffin crumbs off her shirt). I bet you’ve had moments of mess in your life too.
AW: Sure. We all have.
BG: Yep, we all have. I’ve left behind the notion that life should be something else, something, I don’t know … perfect? Or neat, or whatever it is. I’ve given myself full permission to shift through the truth of my life. I tromp around in it, knowing God is there beside me.
AW: So, is Talking to the Dead a work of fiction, or is it a fictionalizedautobiography?
BG: It’s trickier to talk about than it seems. Kate’s story is a work of fiction. I haven’t lived through any of the actual circumstances Kate went through. So the short answer is: Kate is not me, and this is not my story. But, on another level, we have all lived her experiences. We’ve all lived through loss, grief, shame. It’s the journey toward making sense of our lives, making sense of the bad. Is there such a thing as an emotional autobiography? If so, I guess that’s what I’ve written. Including the good parts, like forgiveness and love.
AW: Let’s talk about love. The romantic scenes in this novel are deeplyaffecting, without resorting to clichés or sentimentality. What’s yoursecret for handling the romance element in your novels?
BG: Love is lived out in the everyday. Sweaty palms and thrumming hearts can only get you so far and while they are fun, they aren’t the hallmarks of mature love. It’s important, when talking about love, to get beyond the gooseflesh rush of passion and talk about long-haul love. Kate and Kevin’s dysfunctional love had moments of brilliance. It had to, or why would he hold such sway over Kate? And Jack’s love, well, that’s love of a different kind, isn’t it? Steady, honest, transparent. He is in my mind a model of a man of integrity in love. When God is the center and source of your love, it can’t help but transcend cliché and sentimentality.
AW: Where did the character of Kate Davis come from?
BG: Like most of this book, she came in bits and pieces at first. I began with attributes I wanted to explore through story. Her feistiness, her confusion, and her strong sense of irony were the first three characteristics I knew she had going for her. In time, thank God, she moved out of that two-dimensional world and became a three-dimensional character. Her feistiness morphed and developed into emotional intelligence, survival, and, ultimately, hope. Her sense of irony brought moments of light and relief, and then, again led to hope. It was her confusion that was most fun to work with. She keeps having conversations she doesn’t mean to have. She goes into something thinking she knows what she wants to say and what needs to be discussed, but somewhere in the course of the conversation she loses track of things and is left wondering, What just happened? It was in writing the scenes involving Kate’s confusion that she came fully alive.
AW: Alive? I’ve heard authors say sometimes their characters talk tothem. Did that happen to you?
BG: Yes. It’s a bit strange, but I’ve come to understand it as two parts of my brain talking to each other—a way to resolve dissidence using picture and sound. But it’s fun. Kate was the character who spoke to me most often. But Kevin and I had some difficulties too. Dead people aren’t especially chatty—so getting into his head and writing him as a fully alive person took effort. I was struggling with a scene and I demanded, “Say something, Kevin!” and he said, “I’m too good for this scene. Write a better one.” That’s when I truly understood him. And yes, I wrote him a better scene. It was the only way to get him to talk.
AW: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
BG: A great reading experience—that may sound like “a given,” but it was important to me to try to write a book people would want to read—enjoy on several levels, so that is a huge hope. On top of that, I hope the reader will let her imagination drift, allow herself to ask questions of herself, her life, and in doing so discover just how immediately close God is to her in that moment. That is where clarity comes from.
AW: In her endorsement, Francine Rivers says, “It takes a giftedand intuitive writer like Bonnie to bring humor into the middle ofsuch a serious story. She made me laugh in several of her scenes with‘counselors’ and their philosophies.” How did you manage to bringhumor into the story?
BG: First off, let me say I’m honored that Francine Rivers enjoyed the book. I am a massive fan of hers and it is more than an honor that she read the book and offered such a generous endorsement. But, to answer your question about humor: Did you know there is an entire field of psychology that looks at humor? How it works, what it does for us, why we use it?
AW: Get out!
BG: True. Fascinating stuff. Two keys to the use of humor: type and timing. You must use the appropriate type of humor that fits with the situation. And your timing must be bang-on. You can’t fudge timing. In this novel, I used humor to take the pressure off the reader, to help her take a deep breath and relax before plunging in further. (Stuffs more muffin in her mouth.) And that’s all I have to say about that.
AW: How do you write a novel?
BG: (between bites of pumpkin muffin) How do I write a novel? I don’t think I’ve written enough novels to answer that question. I know how I wrote Talking to the Dead, but I’m at work on a new novel and the process is completely different. Maybe that’s the answer—it’s different every time. Or, maybe after a few more, I’ll have some concrete notion of how I write a novel. Truthfully, I hope it’s the former.
AW: Did you say new book? What can you tell us about it?
BG: At the moment it is untitled but I fondly refer to it as Gabby Wells: The Musical.
AW: It’s a musical?
BG: Ah, no. But it’s all the fun drama of a musical, without the singing, or dancing. Or music. It’s the story of a women who finds Jesus, begins reading the “red words” (words of Jesus) in the Bible, and then is framed for murder.
AW: Oh my! That sounds—hey, you ate the entire muffin!
BG: Oh. I did, too … Sorry about that. If we get another one, I’ll for sure share that one with you.
1. Friendship. Maggie thrust hers onto Kate, Heather forged an inappropriate one. Kate offers her friendship to Sekeena. Examine the role friendship played in Kate’s unfolding drama.
2. Loss. Loss comes in many forms in Kate’s story. There are the obvious losses brought by death, but there are many more. Examine the levels of loss Kate experienced.
3. Mental health. Kate’s grief and guilt expressed itself in many different ways. Examine the evidence that suggests Kate was mentally ill, and the evidence that suggests she was mentally healthy.
4. Love. Kate’s understanding of love changes throughout the book. Love is expressed and rebuffed and rejoiced in at different times. Examine the different kinds of love in the book.
5. Humor. Even in the throes of her sorrow and grief, Kate experienced moments of quirkiness, of lightness, and even humor. How was this accomplished in the book?
6. Therapy. Kate underwent several types of therapy. How did each help her? In what ways did they fail to help her?
7. Faith. Kate wrestles with God. Jack’s faith inspires her, and The Reverend’s faith frightens her. Explore Kate’s journey toward faith—its small but important beginnings, to the end of the book. What do you think about Kate’s faith experience?
Let’s get right to the big question: What was your inspiration for this story?
Adanna’s story is based on a real story. The first time I went to Africa, I was constantly confronted with tragic real-life stories of beautiful children. It was unbearable. There was one little girl I met outside of the capital city of Swaziland; she had the most precious, innocent face I’d ever seen. She was happy and filled with joy. Then the director of the orphanage told me her story. He said she was rescued from an abusive situation, although at first they didn’t know how badly. They took her in and loved her as their own. She had the typical signs of neglect: filthy from head to toe; ratty, shredded clothes hanging from her body; and bruises and cuts from being hit with sticks and hands. The first day she was there, all the kids met together in a group to play a game. When the game started, this little girl was unable to hold her bladder and had an “episode” in front of everyone. At first the teachers believed that she had never been potty trained. Day after day, the same thing occurred. They took her to a doctor and realized that the abuse was much more severe than they assumed. Both of her parents died from AIDS, then a distant uncle took her in. Her life was reduced to the life of a slave. She was forced to work fifteen hours a day, and her uncle sold her body to men in the community so he could have money for alcohol. Then he began violently raping her on a daily basis. Thus the reason for her incontinence. Her story became the story of many little girls I met throughout Africa. It was more than I could handle. It still is. I was compelled to act and had to tell their story. I have to believe that as people read Scared, they will be moved with compassion and also compelled to act.
What other characters or circumstances are based on real life? Without revealing specifics (unless you want to), where did they all come from?
SPOILER ALERT Almost every character in the book is taken from a real relationship I have with someone in Africa. For example, Pastor Walter is one of the people I admire most in Swaziland. He is a church planter who cares for hundreds of orphans in his community. I know that in times past, Walter has fed the many orphaned children he cares for while his own children have gone hungry. He’s an amazing man. The faith he has for God’s provision in his life surpasses mine in so many ways. He gives out of the very little he has, when it’s difficult for me at times to give out of my abundance. I remember when he told me about how he was called to care for all of these orphans in his village. He said that the Bible verse that kept ringing in his ear was James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion is taking care of orphans and widows in their distress.” So he said to God, “Hey, God, You know I am a poor man. Send me some wealthy people to help me.” God’s response was immediate: “Listen, boy, put your hand in your own pocket, and give to them as I have given to you.” That’s what Walter did. Today, he cares for one thousand orphans in eight different care points. He’s truly an inspiration to me. In fact if you visit www.ScaredtheBook.com, you can view a documentary on the life of the real Pastor Walter. Some of the events are real. The story about the organization pretending to help people after the flood is true. African people have been used and taken advantage of in terrible ways—another reason why it’s so important that people who genuinely care get involved, keep their word, and show them what love really looks like.
Clearly the themes in Scared are things you’re passionate about. What drives that passion?
I believe everyone needs to know about the suffering the children in Africa endure. It’s the definition of injustice and shouldn’t be allowed to exist in the twenty-first century. I know this is difficult for people to hear. After all, nobody likes to feel helpless or guilty regarding situations such as this. I assure you that’s not my intention. But reality is reality. What I want people to know is how easy it is for them to make a tremendous difference in the life of a child suffering in poverty. A mere five dollars can be the difference between life and death. That amount of money can provide life-saving malaria medicine, one hundred meals, or a mosquito net. My passion is driven from the core belief that not only can everyone in the West do something to help children trapped in poverty, they must. God’s kingdom comes when God’s people tackle issues like these and change the circumstances because of their love. We are the answer, that’s why we must act.
This is your first novel. Describe the process you went through. What did you learn along the way?
Grueling—that describes the process. I’ve written three nonfiction books to this point, and writing them came more naturally. Nonfiction tends to be more linear, which is how I’m wired to think. I’m so left-brained! Writing a novel was a completely different process. I paid the price for the years I didn’t pay attention in English literature and grammar classes in college and high school! I had to go back and relearn those English lessons in a very short period of time. A novel is more like a tapestry. Every scene, every chapter, every word has to be woven together. And everything, and I do mean everything, has to be described. In nonfiction that’s not necessary, but in fiction it’s a must. What did I learn? I learned that anything is possible if you put all your heart, mind, and soul into it. Believe me, there were times when I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the finish line. There were days when nothing I was writing made sense, nights when nothing would come out right, and weeks when I couldn’t write because of my crazy schedule. I probably wrote over one thousand typed pages just to get three hundred. Of course, I had the help of some brilliant people throughout the process, like Lisa Samson, Claudia Mair Burney, Moira Allaby, and Steve Parolini, who helped me chisel off the rough edges and shape it brilliantly. In the end, I’m very pleased with how the novel turned out. It’s a difficult story, but one that focuses on the true meaning of life and where we all need to place our hopes no matter what country we live in.
How did the story change from your first draft to the published version?
SPOILER ALERT There were several major changes that took place. One was Stuart’s character. At first, he was much more self-centered and egotistical; he wasn’t likeable at all. Don’t get me wrong; he of course still has many issues to work through in the first half of the finished book. His character was inspired by a man named Kevin Carter. You may not recognize his name, but you would know a picture he took. It was a photo of a little Sudanese toddler on the way to a food center who had fallen in the dirt. She was completely emaciated and obviously on the brink of starvation. In the background sat a well-fed, quite plump vulture waiting for her to die. It’s horrific. Well, Mr. Carter became famous for that shot and later won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Becoming famous for a photo like this, along with the evil and suffering he viewed through the lens of his camera was more than he could bear. He committed suicide about sixteen months after taking that photo. Here’s a portion of what he left in his suicide note: “I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.…” Stuart was headed along the same path as Kevin, but the encounter he has with Adanna changes him. He undergoes a transformation that re-creates his values and his view on life, which turns him into a new man. I also changed the number of tragedies that happened to Adanna. Sadly, what happens to her in the book happens to millions of children in our world today. It’s injustice of the worst kind. But I couldn’t do one more terrible thing to her; I couldn’t bear it. There was a scene were she had to sell her body for a loaf of bread to feed her brother and sister, but I took it out. The ending is completely different than I wrote it the first time. It was changed about three times. Previously, Adanna didn’t die. She became a bit famous for her poem and went throughout Africa speaking on AIDS and abuse. That was heartwarming, but it wasn’t reality. This ending is the right one. It fits. It hurts, but it fits.
You include a rather sly (and subtle) reference to Children’s HopeChest in Scared. Tell us more about that organization and your role in it.
Ha, ha, yes, very sneaky of me! Without a doubt, Children’s HopeChest is my passion. It represents what I will do for the rest of my life. I’ve seen this organization save the lives of so many widows and orphans around the world. The key for HopeChest is relationships. We want to empower people to actively engage in the lives of the poor. The heart of HopeChest is to be the living reality of that James 1:27 passage I mentioned earlier: “Pure and undefiled religion is taking care of widows and orphans in their distress.” We do that by providing for their needs in five areas: physical needs, education, medical/dental, emotional, and spiritual. It’s a holistic, redemptive, long-term approach to care for orphans in a way that is practical. Our goal is to provide the necessary love and care to widows and orphans so they become leaders in their communities. They will be the generation that leads their countries out of poverty, death, and despair. That’s what we believe. My goal is to connect everyone who has a heart for this kind of ministry to HopeChest in a way that transforms their life, and the life of the widow or orphan they touch. If you’re interested in engaging at that level, check out www.HopeChest.org or call or e-mail me!
What do you hope readers will walk away with after spending time in Adanna’s world?
I hope through Adanna’s voice and life, readers are moved on such a deep level about the plight of orphans like her that they are compelled to act. There’s one startling truth I’ve discovered in helping the poor in our world, and it’s this: The difference between life and death for widows and orphans in our world is me and you. Seriously! As I’ve said, five dollars can be the difference between life-saving malaria medicine and death; it’s the cost to provide clean water to someone for a year; and it also can provide one hundred meals to orphans in Africa. Every single person reading this can do that. I think it’s also healthy to walk in other people’s shoes. Scared provides the opportunity to do that. To see the world through the life of an orphan growing up in Africa, in the midst of complete destruction is alarming. I can’t help but to ask the question, what if it was me or my kids? What if we were the ones born in a different place? This is more than just being thankful to live in America. It’s about identifying with someone else’s pain and being moved with compassion. It’s my firm belief that God has already sent the answers to solve the world’s most difficult issues, and the answer is people like us getting involved. So take a step to help, just one, and it will change your life forever!
What are some practical ways readers can help the situation in Africa?
One, go to www.ScaredtheBook.com. There’s a contest going on right now that will help three incredible African orphans win the dream of a lifetime! An all-expense-paid education—primary school, secondaryschool, even college and university. Whenever I talk to kids in Africa, they always tell me their number one need is an education. Not food, not water. Why? Because they say that without an education, they’ll die anyway. On the Web site, you can be a part of fulfilling this dream and vote for the winner. This is a writing contest, and whoever receives the most votes will be declared the winner in each category: short story, memoir, and poetry. We are also raising a million dollars that will go in an education fund to help pay for thousands of orphans’ education. Check that out at www.OrphanEducationFund.org. Two, you can help provide one hundred meals to needy orphans in Africa. How? Go to www.5for50.com. There are five practical steps listed that will help you really make a difference in the lives of the poor. We’ll even send you a free bracelet just for signing up. You can get my nonfiction book Red Letters: Living a Faith That Bleeds, and get educated about the problem so you can position yourself to make a difference. My blog is another good resource, www.CThomasDavis.com. It has tons of links, stories, and resources to help you on your justice journey. Last but not least, check out the Children’s HopeChest Web site, www.HopeChest.org. There you can sponsor a child, sign up for a trip, or find out how to be more involved.
Are there plans for more novels? Nonfiction works? What’s on the drawing board for the future?
Scared is actually the first book of a series I’m writing. The next book finds Stuart Daniels in Russia exposing one of the most villainous and evil industries on the face of the earth, the child sex-slave trade. This book is a thriller, keeping you on the edge of your seat from the very first chapter. It is a headfirst dive into the culture and history of Russia and includes a dangerous confrontation with the mafia in an attempt to free girls who are sex slaves. Stuart will be stretched more than ever. He goes underground in hiding at an orphanage and meets a little boy who is an artist and changes his life. I’m also working on a nonfiction book that focuses on merging ancient Christian practices into our lives in a way that reveals the kingdom of God through everything we do. I’m very excited about both of these projects. Stay tuned to my blog to find out more about when these will release along with special contests I’ll be running and information about videos of Africa and Russia that helped inspire these books.
Q: You’ve written contemporary romance, nineteenth-century fiction, general contemporary fiction, and a medieval suspense series. Why return to the nineteenth century?
A: There is something intriguing and reassuring about the 1880s to me. It’s both a vibrant time in the world with the Industrial Revolution well under way, but also somewhat simple and innocent, too. Sometimes I wish I lived in the 1880s, but with a computer, vaccines, appliances, and indoor plumbing everywhere.
Q: You’re a travel junkie. Why place this series in your Colorado backyard?
A: People love Colorado. I love Colorado. It’s visually beautiful, of course, and it’s been on my mind and heart to set a series here for some time. And when I learned of how so many people came to Colorado Springs to seek the cure for tuberculosis (in the early years, about a third of our residents), I knew it had to be here. But I have to say my eye is wandering back toward Europe for my next series. Can’t keep me home for long! I’ll stay put for Sing and Claim but then I’m outta here, baby! Luckily, Sing takes place in the Sangre de Cristos and the gold camps of Colorado; Claim will take place near Ouray—a fantastic, gorgeous place to visit. And Moira and Nic are on the move—around the world—so I can do some exploration, too.
Q: Your fascination with travel has even led to a new business, hasn’t it?
A: A hobby, mostly. Tim and I launched a Web site with friends, www.FamilyTripster.com, to encourage families to travel together. We love hearing how other families manage it—and to share tidbits on how to make it easier for all to navigate a city, foreign or close to home.
Q: How much did you have to research for this series?
A: I read several books about the history of tuberculosis and many first-person accounts. It’s a terrible way to die … a slow suffocation. Then some general history books about the 1880s to refresh my memory. And I always love the local books that have pictures and accounts of our forefathers; it makes it come alive for me.
Q: What did you learn about yourself in writing Breathe?
A: I love to learn along with my characters. It’s part of the ride as an author. For me, the “aha” was the same as Odessa’s. I think that I’m slowly coming to believe, understand, and embrace the idea that God really does hold my life in His hand. And that’s okay. I trust Him … so if He gives me another sixty years or sixty seconds, I’m good.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Sing, the next book in this series. And a couple of children’s books.
Q: How can readers find out more about you and your work?
A: My Web sites: www.LisaTawnBergren.com; www. BusyMomsDevo.com; www.GodGaveUsYou.com; www. FamilyTripster.com are the best way. And if a reader signs up on www.LisaTawnBergren.com to receive my monthly e-newsletter, she’ll receive a new devotional each month inside it. My heart goes into those, in between novels. You’ll get a glimpse of the good, the bad, and the ugly in my life—and how Christ somehow redeems it all.
GROUP DISCUSSION QUESTI O N S 1. Have you ever endured a life-threatening illness or been close to someone who has? What was that experience like? What did it teach you?
2. Are you afraid of death? Why or why not? What would be the hardest part about saying good-bye to loved ones? What would bring you comfort?
3. Do you think you could have survived in the 1880s? What would you miss the most: Internet, television, or a washer/ dryer?
4. If you are a woman, how would you deal with the traditional role of women in that era? Would that be a comfort or chafe?
5. In this time, people left family behind to move West, and often never saw them again. If it meant never seeing your extended family again, would you have moved to have a chance at prosperity or health? Why or why not?
6. Odessa comes through a lot to regain her health. Had you been in her shoes, would you risk your life to get to the bottom of the mystery? Or would you have walked away?
7. Do you believe the length of your life is preordained? Why or why not?
8. Discuss how you trust God—or don’t—day to day. Think of a concrete example or way you’ve trusted—or didn’t—in the last week.
9. Why do you think this book is titled Breathe? Think beyond the physical aspect.
10. Which character are you most interested in hearing more about in books two and three in this series, and why?