Lisa: Welcome to my site, Deb. I hear you just got some great news, winning a significant literary award for your debut novel, THE THIRD GRACE.
Deb: Thanks for inviting me, Lisa. Yes, the Grace Irwin Award is a sort of “book of the year” designation, and at $5,000 is the largest literary prize given for Canadians who write from a Christian perspective—not that the cash is the most important thing! I was completely surprised and honored to receive this sort of validation from my peers through The Word Guild, who put on the national contest (see http://canadianchristianwritingawards.com/awards/grace-irwin-award/).
Lisa: Give us the blurb of your novel.
Deb: My main character, Mary Grace, fell in love with a French exchange student visiting her parents’ Nebraska farm the summer she was seventeen. François renamed her “Aglaia” after a Greek goddess, and whispered mythological tales into her ear to set her heart longing for something more than her parents’ simplistic life and faith. Then he disappeared from her life. Now, fifteen years later, Aglaia is still single and working as a costume designer in Denver. Her budding success in the city’s posh arts scene convinces her that she’s left the naïve country girl far behind, but “Mary Grace” has deep roots—as Aglaia learns during a business trip to Paris. Her discovery of sensual notes François jotted into a Bible during that long-ago fling combined with a silly errand imposed by her mother and the scheming of her sophisticated mentor conspire to create a thirst in her soul that neither evocative daydreams nor professional success can quench. THE THIRD GRACE follows a woman on a dual journey across oceans and time, torn between her rural upbringing and her search for self.
Lisa: How did you come up with the story idea?
Deb: The first time I went to Europe, over twenty years ago, I stood in the Louvre Museum in Paris before a marble statue grouping of the Three Graces and thought what a perfect icon they would be. But life at that time wasn’t quite ready to let me write my novel yet.
Lisa: Yes, I see from your website that you’ve enjoyed a fairly busy life. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you first came to write, back in the beginning.
Deb: Well, I love words—the way they feel in the mouth and sound in the air and look on the page. I spoke in full sentences before I walked, and my elementary report cards invariably stated, “Debbie is an excellent student, but she talks too much.” I lived under the shame of being a chatterbox until I figured out how to use my verbal tendencies to my advantage—by organizing the jumble in my soul through writing childish poems, high school assignments, college short stories, graduate research. Not that writing has slowed my talking much!
I grew up with four siblings in urban Canada under creative parents—a prolific artist and a yarn-spinning entrepreneur—and so I’m an extroverted and adventuresome city-slicker when it comes to shopping, social and cultural events, or travel. But my heart is in the bucolic countryside, my city heart converted when I fell in love with a cowboy and moved to an isolated prairie cattle ranch for two decades of horseback riding, cooking for huge branding crews, and raising a family. When our last of three home-educated kids went off to boarding school at age fifteen, I returned to school myself for a few years and, finally, no longer had an excuse to shelve my dreams of becoming a novelist. Today I write from a cozy nest on the banks of a creek in southern Alberta near the Montana border, looking out my kitchen window at the historic red barn on a green-hill backdrop.
So I think both my personality and my circumstances have primed me to write, compelling me to communicate what is in my mind and my heart.
Lisa: Well, what exactly is in your mind and heart?
Deb: My mom used to warn me against letting my imagination run away with me, so I know my fears and fantasies must have shown up early in my life. But I’ve always immersed myself into the experience at hand. A prof of mine, explaining the two types of people in the world, told about the roommates of a college boy who took off his stinky running shoe; his pain-avoiding roomie pushed back and said, “Keep that thing away from me,” while the pleasure seeker leaned forward eagerly to exclaim, “Here, let me smell!” I’m the second student: I taste-test the gravy a dozen times during the simmering, I rub silk fabric against my cheek to really feel the fibers, I even breathe deeply when driving past an excited skunk on the gravel road. My husband and kids tell me I’m addicted to experiences. I can’t help it—I love the sheer pleasure of the senses.
And yet, hedonistic as that might be, I’m convinced that chasing emotion-producing sensation as an end in itself is ultimately empty. It’s very useful in descriptive writing, sure—but I believe that message is more important than method. Of course, no one is going to read my writing if it’s boring, but message-driven story can use vivid technique. I’ve written in varying styles for differing purposes (editing scholarly dissertations, penning forlorn love letters, reporting journalistic information), but I’m infatuated with fiction. I’m striving to use the sensual (that is, method) in order to reveal the spiritual (message).
I’m still going through the learning stages in how to apply my purpose of retelling timeless truths. No story, I believe, is totally new but rather a reiteration of the four main plot points we find in the Bible: creation, the fall, redemption, and re-creation. I approached the writing of my first novel with this in mind, and I hope to increasingly engage the senses along with the more cerebral elements of metaphor and analogy through riveting plots and layered personalities. It’s so satisfying to create in this way!
Lisa: What was the most fun about writing this particular novel?
Deb: I just loved stitching the storyline together and doing the research—especially about Greek mythology and how it juxtaposes Christian theology. I found it extremely pleasurable as well to develop characters who mirror themes in my own life—Aglaia’s transfer between country and city living and her artistic passions, Lou’s academic avarice, Eb’s sacramental Christian faith, Naomi’s evangelical impulses. And, of course, character interaction was pivotal for me in real life, as well; I had a “François” of sorts in my own teenhood (as most girls do), and in my novel I was able to take that relationship to its logical conclusion. (Compare their first and last kisses on pages 93 and 207.)
Lisa: It’s a romance novel, then?
Deb: Not at all. THE THIRD GRACE does have an embedded love story and explores relationships, but the novel is about looking for spiritual meaning and place. A cool quote from G.K. Chesterton hints at my premise: “Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for.”
Lisa: So what’s next, Deb? Do you have another novel in the making?
Deb: I’m just drafting a story about Libby, a single Minneapolis salesclerk pushing fifty and looking to finally purchase her first house. She’s being harassed on the one hand by a homeless bag lady and on the other by her zany younger friend, who’s enticing Libby to blow her budget on travel to international “sacred places” such as Mayan ruins in Mexico, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, and a mosque in Istanbul. But, instead, a child’s antique Victorian ring lures Libby to a mansion museum in North Dakota, where her shadowy heritage is unveiled and she truly finds the meaning of home.
The author welcomes all inquiries, and she can be contacted through her email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or website (www.debelkink.com).
You can reach Lisa Johnson through her email (email@example.com) or blog (http://seekingwithallyurheart.blogspot.com/).