What made you start writing?
I remember being a toddler sitting in the cool, still, half-darkness of my Tennessee grandmother’s living room where she had a bookshelf. I pulled down book after book and pored over them. I knew those black marks were important because people paid attention when books or newspapers were open. I knew that what was on those pages had power, and I was determined to find out what it was.
I read voraciously when I learned how to read. We lived far from a library and were not rich, so I read the books I had over and over again: Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, all the Bobbsey Twins books, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island.
I knew that I wanted to be able to use those powerful symbols on pages, and I began making stories out of my spelling words in my early grades. Often I escaped from the tumult of my home life by converting the fractious conversations going on around me into dialogue in my mind.
What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?
Other than poetry, one children’s book, and a couple of radio plays that were professionally produced, everything else I had published was nonfiction up until I wrote my first novel. Even though I had taken a novel writing class years before, and was a very active reader (often listening to audiobooks as I did household chores and as I traveled), I didn’t think I could write book-length fiction. And other non-fiction projects kept springing up (like my dissertation.)
I knew I could write non-fiction well and didn’t think I had the courage to expose myself, to risk failure, with fiction. With non-fiction, I always document what I say (and so stand behind someone else, so to speak.) With fiction, it’s like wearing transparent clothing.
Do you put yourself into your books/characters?
Yes, I do. I guess you could say I have a skeptical heart, and it shows in many of my characters. In writing fiction from a biblical world view – embracing its depiction of reality that is transgenerational, transcultural, pantemporal – I try to be honest in taking into account the reservations a non-Christian might have regarding what I’m saying. One writing teacher taught me that the goal of excellent writing is to answer the possible objections to what you’re saying just as – or even before – such questions arise in the mind of the reader.
With all that said, it explains my adamance about how reality is portrayed in books that propose to depict the Gospel. If there’s anything I hate more than gratuitous violence or gratuitous sex, it’s gratuitous Christianity.
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?
I trust my nonfiction. I still don’t trust myself with fiction.
Tell us a little about your latest release:
Latter-day Cipher (Moody, 2009) is an usual book. (Well, every author would say that, I know.) But I believe it to be the first attempt to tell, in a literary fashion, the many emotional factors involved in loving Mormonism and then deciding to leave it. In addition, the novel describes and explains many of the oddities of this religion, and has realistic characters wrestle with understanding its contradictions and lovelinesses. Cipher is a murder mystery, it’s true; but it is also a psychological thriller and a primer on modern-day Mormonism.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?
A very specific moment! My husband Dan and I were on a trip and listened to The DaVinci Code as we traveled. We loved the exciting plot (although, as a theologian, I have issues with some of his assertions because of my own historical research.) Dan turned to me and said, “You could write a book like that.” God may hold me responsible for my lack of humility, but my first response was, “Well, I hope I could do the actual writing better than him.” But Dan argued persuasively that Tom Clancy wrote about military issues because he was in the military, and John Grisham wrote about legal issues because he was a lawyer; and that I could write about Mormonism’s many convoluted secrets and strange beliefs because I had been a faithful Mormon for ten years.
So I thought… hmmm…. Blood atonement…. Hidden treasures in a mountain… Brigham Young’s phonetic alphabet… and Latter-day Cipher began to take shape in my mind.
Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:
Most of the action of the novel is seen through the eyes of Selonnah Zee, a journalist with a criminalistics background who comes to Utah on an innocuous writing assignment but finds herself in the middle of a series of mysterious crimes. At each crime scene the perpetrator leaves a note written in Brigham Young’s code. And each of the crimes has something to do with Mormon doctrine – like the old Mormon prohibitions against marriage between blacks and whites, for instance.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?
It was a trip, exhilarating, intoxicating, wheeee-fun. But it was also terrifying because I took such risks with language. In some cases my courageous editor Andy McGuire saved me from the purple Latayne.
What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?
I want people to feel how deeply I loved Mormonism, the richness of its culture, the resplendence of its hope – all of which are thus doubly disappointing when they turn out to be based on something false and empty. In the words of C. H. Spurgeon: “If God be thy portion, then there is no loss in all the world that lies so hard and so heavy upon thee as the loss of thy God.”
And, I hope readers will do what one other reader advised: Read Latter-day Cipher with an open Internet connection. Most people want to verify or follow up on aspects of Mormonism they never suspected were there.
What does your writing space look like? (Insert picture if possible)
I wrote my first book long-hand on stacks of spiral notebooks in a 4x8 space in my garage. But now I have a glorious office with a mountain view, a wood burning stove, and a laptop.
What kind of activities do you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?
I love watching 24 on the treadmill, gardening and cooking, reading murder mysteries and thrillers, having small private writers’ retreats for my friends, Egyptology, Spurgeon, hanging out with my family, getting away in my travel trailer.
Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.
You know already how Cipher began. But before I actually began writing, I reviewed my notes from the novel class, put myself through a workbook course called The Marshall Plan Workbook: Writing Your Novel From Start to Finish, and then outlined The Silence of the Lambs (because it did the best job I’d ever read of sustaining suspense with multiple POVs while doing incredible descriptions.)
What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special?
I don’t remember the first book, sorry. But I do remember my first mystery – a Nancy Drew – and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever read.
What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?
I say the Bible first – and not just because I write religious books. It is the mind of God, linguistically portrayed, and the source of new riches and insights, every single time I open its pages.
I read Spurgeon’s A Treasury of David most mornings. I love Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, most best-selling mystery writers, Bonnie Grove, Kathleen Popa, Sharon Souza, Debbie Thomas, Patti Hill, Philip Yancey.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
If a writer loves words and respects their power, I love that writer, regardless of the subject matter. (Well, there are some subject matters too intense for me to read, I admit; so I might qualify that statement.) But someone who uses words to expand a slit into the limitless and kind light of truth, is someone who helps me aspire to a nobility of writing.
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?
Except for the few times I took my eyes off the eternal goals I’ve always had for my writing, I have no regrets.
How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?
One of my publishers’ marketing guys recently told me that I was “one of his hardest-working authors.”
One reason that fiction can speak to people's hearts is that it allows the reader to vicariously experience scenarios and work through solutions to problems as the reader accompanies the characters. I believe that's why issue-oriented fiction is often more helpful to someone embroiled in a problem than straight instructive non-fiction can be. An issue I struggle with, and thus my characters in Latter-day Cipher struggle with, is the contrast between the good things about Mormonism and the contradictory issues in its doctrines and history.
I post regularly at one of the most open-minded online sites where people discuss such things -- the HBO Big Love discussion boards. There I interact with people who have questions about Mormonism and when I can, I answer their questions. If a writer is writing about an issue, he or she should go to the sites where people discuss these issues -- whether it's teen pregnancy, divorce, abuse, or whatever. Don't go to the sites where people are likely to agree with you -- go where you can learn from people who are interested in your issue also post their frustrations and questions. You will learn from outside of your own point of view; and, if you have something helpful to give them (from your own research, statistics, online sources, etc.) you will not only help them but show them that you have something authoritative to say (and perhaps reference your own book along the way.)
Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?
I am committed to trying to write literary fiction. My present project is one that tackles the great issues of my life presently: Why are some of the noblest and best people suffering so?
These questions are asked by my protagonist, a woman living in the first century AD, who while being part of the most blessed generation of all time – who lived at the same time as Jesus Christ – yet suffered catastrophically.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
With the great access that everyone has to self-publishing today, I would urge any person who wants to write Christian fiction to ask himself or herself: What is my purpose in wanting to publish this book? And, have I been called to do it?