Monday, June 24, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Christa Allan

Today Novel Matters talks with Christian fiction writer, Christa Allan--a true Carpe Annum woman!

A true Southern woman who knows any cook worth her gumbo always starts with a roux and who never wears white after Labor Day, Christa Allan writes Women's fiction, stories of hope and redemption. Her upcoming novel, A Test of Faith, will release later this year. Threads of Hope, one of the books in Abingdon’s Quilt Series, released in March (2013). Walking on Broken Glass (2010) and The Edge of Grace (2011) were also published by Abingdon. Love Finds You in New Orleans (Summerside Press) released in 2012. Christa is the mother of five, grandmother of three, and recently retired after teaching twenty-five years of high school English. She and her husband Ken live in New Orleans in a home built in the 1850s with their three neurotic cats where they practice dodging hurricanes.

Novel Matters: Welcome Christa. Many of our readers have read your first two novels, Walking on Broken Glass, and The Edge of Grace. Tell us about your newest novel. When is it coming out?

Christa Allan: My newest novel, which won't release until late in 2013/early 2014, is entitled (for now), A Test of Faith.

NM: Great title. How did this story come about?

CA: The seed of the story is based on one told to me by the wife of one of my husband's colleagues at dinner. As soon as Ken and I were in the car, I dug in my purse and scribbled what I could remember on the back of my checkbook deposit slips. It's a story of what happens when a fifteen-year-old secret is unexpectedly exposed, and it sets off a chain reaction that threatens to destroy the fragile balance of a woman's life.

NM: So wishing I could pre-order the book, but it’s too early just yet! Okay, now I’m wishing I’d been at that dinner with you. I love how you KNEW, listening to that woman tell her story that there was a novel in there. I know your ideas come from all over the place, Christa. Did you know at the onset of your writing career that you would be writing multiple novels with different subject matters?

CA: In the beginning of my writing life, my path reflected the opening of Genesis. It was without form and full of darkness. I doubt I knew a path existed or even cared. So delirious with joy over my first contract, I didn't think beyond it. Sort of like being more prepared for the wedding than the marriage, you know? I've written a book a year since my debut novel was published in 2010, but that's a function of contracts rather than choice. Until January 18 of this year, I taught high school English full-time, sponsored the Junior Class, the National Honor Society, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and graded 300+ papers a week. Attempting to write more than one book a year during that time would have sent me to crazy-land on a jet instead of the cruise ship I happened to be on. But, truth be told, had I been offered the opportunity to write more than one book a year, my fear of rejecting an offer and not getting another would have led me to accept the contract. In April, a high school teacher signed a $1.7 million contract for a book that he wrote over a ten-year period. That's over $100K a year. Makes me wonder why I thought ten a year would be better, but I doubt my little ADD self could have nursed a novel for a decade. Today, I'd choose to write one novel or maybe two novellas a year.

NM: A novel a year seems like the expected norm in the industry (though I don’t know that I could produce that consistently), tell me about your writing process. Do you use an outline?

CA: My process: Hooray! NYT Bestseller idea, write reams of brain urp on yellow legal pads, write three chapters, call my BFF and scream, "I don't have a novel, and why the hell did I ever believe I was a writer?"; go back to legal pads, write to the middle, make charts and graphs and index cards while consuming coffee, Coke Zero, chocolate, popcorn, Mike&Ikes ; write, stop and make more notes and consume any combination or all of the above foods, write...continue until "The End." I doubt that process has a name or that I'll be able to turn it into a writing book.

I just finished a remarkable online class (Story Structure Safari by Lisa W Miller) that kicked my butt, in a help you fit into your jeans way. Lisa is an incredibly smart and ruthlessly patient individual who provides a plethora of information she's gleaned from other writers, novels, movies. Every worksheet made me tremble in fear I'd be hopelessly lost. Wrapping my brain around that kind of structure is like trying to find Waldo...I know he's there someplace, and I'll be thrilled when I find him. In the meantime, I'm bumping into everyone and everything else, sometimes only finding him by figuring out who isn't Waldo.

As free-spirited as I'd like to believe I am and portray myself to be, I've learned I don't always do well without boundaries. It's not that I won't cross the lines; I need to know where the lines are so at least I'm aware that I'm overstepping them. As short as five years ago when I first dipped my toe in the waters of publication, things were more defined, charted and scheduled. Today, the open sea is adventurous, but it's also overwhelming and fraught with the unknown. Both positive and negative. I'm much more willing now to jump into the ocean, but I still want/need a life vest. Epublishing, pursuing other genres and markets are options I wouldn't have considered years ago. Then, affirmation and validation that what I wrote was "worthy" of being published were important. Maybe it was ego-centric, but it gave me what I know that even if I didn't believe it myself, someone else believed it me. And it was enough to get me to where I am today, which is exploring options outside of traditional publishing. I'm not heading into this without caution; it's crucial, especially when I'm working outside of the familiar, to follow people who have walked through the land mines and come out on the other side.

NM: Okay, let’s shift back to the broad range of topics you write on. You write for the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) which many of us who read Novel Matters are familiar with. Are there any writing taboos you've respected in the past that, after writing several novels, you no longer consider taboo? If so, which ones, and why? Which would you never break?

CA: My tagline was "not your usual Christian fiction," so writing taboos were taboo for me.    Before submitting my first novel, I was told agents/editors didn't want/like prologues, shifting points of view, or "issues." It sold with all of those. Story always trumps. For every supposed taboo, there's a commercial or literary fiction that ignores it. Good grief, Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce, can you say, "Hello, give me a punctuation mark?"  Writing isn't powerful because it obeys rules. It's powerful because it uses whatever is necessary to break through the human heart and spirit.

NM: And there are risks as a writer when you do touch those tender places, aren’t there? Feedback from readers from novel to novel can swing wildly one way or the other. Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

CA: I'd like to say I've divorced myself from the opinions of others, but the best I can do is to temporarily separate myself from them. Some negative reviews have validity, and I'd even agree with the reviewer. The ones I object to and am most affected by are those that are simply mean and insulting or berate me for something over which I have no control, like the Kindle formatting snafus. I'm learning to not read or buy into my reviews, even the glowing ones. I console myself with stories of the number of agents who passed on The Help or Harry Potter.  Some days my writing is an exercise in brilliance; some days it's an exercise in angst. I feel the fear, and do it anyway. It gets me to my laptop, and then I pray and sweat and write.

NM: All kinds of hard won wisdom there, Christa. So, if tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

CA: If tomorrow were the first day of my career, I'd tell myself that there would be days, maybe weeks where I'd hate writing, myself, other writers, and the entire universe of publishing. That I'd sob, laugh, envy and ache. But, after over two decades of teaching, I'm an expert in the art of delayed gratification, so I'd remind myself that if I didn't pursue my dream, regret would pursue me.

NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?

CA: The one thing I can't be without as a writer? Ouch. Does a sense of humor count? No, that's not a thing. Well, it would be my laptop because I it lets me write, research, play, stay in touch with the world, communicate with my friends, and saves everything for me.

NM: A sense of humour counts big time. Without it, writers go the way of Hemingway and Plath. It’s too painful. There are too many bumps—more like hulking cliffs and valleys—along the way to make it through without knowing how to laugh. Okay. Rocky road of writing. Who do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey?

CA: When I need advice, I am blessed to have relationships with other writers to talk to, people I respect for their tenacity and honesty. And who are willing to give me advice when I'm too goofy to see I need it. Sometimes, though, I just need to whine, and my family allows it for a brief time.

MN: So, talk to writing peers, and whine to family. This is good. What advice do you give to writers who are looking to seize the year and take control of their writing career?

CA: This isn’t my advice; it’s actually from Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird is one of my favorite go-to books to revive me as a writer. So, I came across this recently, and it is all about seizing our dreams:

If you always dreamed of writing a novel or a memoir, and you used to love to write, and were pretty good at it, will it break your heart if it turns out you never got around to it? If you wake up one day at eighty, will you feel nonchalant that something always took precedence over a daily commitment to discovering your creative spirit?

If not--if this very thought fills you with regret--then what are you waiting for?

Back in the days when I had writing students, they used to spend half their time explaining to me why it was too hard to get around to writing every day, but how once this or that happens--they retired, or their last kid moved out--they could get to work.

I use to say very nicely, "That's very nice; but it's a total crock. There will never be a good time to write. It will never be easier. If you won't find an hour a day now, you won't find it then."

It's the same belief as thinking that once you lose weight, you'll begin to feel good about yourself. No, you won't. If you're not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you're not going to be okay at 140. It's an inside job. 

How do you begin? The answer is simple: you decide to. Then you push back your sleeves and start writing--I.e., scribbling words down on paper, or typing at a computer. And it will be completely awful. It will be unreadable  [*#@* ] ! You won't have a clue how it will account to anything, ever. And to that, I say, Welcome. That's what it's like to be a writer. But you just do it anyway. At my church, we sing a gospel song called, "Hallelujah anyway." Everything's a mess, and you're going down the tubes financially, and gaining weight? Well, Hallelujah anyway.

So you decide to get back to work creatively, and you write up some thoughts or passages or memories or scenes. Then what? Then you write some more. Everywhere you go, you carry a pen, and take notes--ideas will start to come to you. You'll see and overhear and remember things that you want to include in this mysterious quilt you're putting together, so you jot them down. Imagine a rag-bag guy who lives inside you, who collects images, descriptions, holy moments, snippets of funny conversation, for you to use in your writing--but he doesn't have any hands, and needs you to help him amass the rags with which you can make squares for the quilt.

That's all you have to do today: pay attention--being a writer is about paying attention. Stop hitting the snooze button. Carry a pen with you everywhere, or else God will give me all these insights and images that were supposed to go to you. Hang up a shingle on the inside of you: now open for business. Wow! You won't have to wake up at 70, aching with regret that you threw your creative essence under the bus. And if you already are seventy, then you won't have to wake up at eighty, confused and in despair about how you let your gift slip away. Because you will have been writing--or dancing again, or practicing recorder--every single glorious, livelong, weird, amazing day.”

NM: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! You’ve given us great advice about how to Carpe Annum for ourselves. Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?

CA: A few months before I retired, I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself about how I was going to spend my days after January 18. I didn’t want to leave one job and feel as if I’d be reporting to another one at my own desk in my own house. So that meant deciding what I wanted to write and for whom. I gave myself permission to write, without self-editing, without trying to fit a market or a publishing house, just trying to drill into my passion for the story.

Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us today, Christa. You’re a Carpe Annum kind of woman and we’re so lucky to have you share your wisdom with us.

You can learn more about Christa’s books on her website.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thank you for all of this, Christa! You packed a whole lot into this interview. I'm going to have to read it a couple times.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Christa. I've been looking forward to this! I love hearing how others writers work, and that the only "right" element is consistency -- or persistence, as we've been talking about here the past few days.

Christa Allan said...

Susie and Sharon,

I appreciate your kind words. I'm thrilled to be here!

Joy said...

Thanks for being yourself. That made reading the blog post more fun, and draws me to your writing.

Christa Allan said...

And thanks to you, Joy, for stopping by. Much appreciated!

Jolina Petersheim said...

Wonderful interview, Christa! As a debut novelist, I love how you compared the start of your writing career as the beginning of Genesis. That resonated with me, too!

Christa Allan said...

Thanks, Jolina. As someone who taught The Scarlet Letter for decades, I'm looking forward to your release.

Bonnie Grove said...

Great stuff, Christa. As always, you're engaging, bright, challenging, and wonderful.

Latayne C Scott said...

This is one of the best guest interviews we have ever had. Thank you, Christa!

Christa Allan said...

Thanks Bonnie and Latayne. I'm buying you both pom-poms!

Honored to have been asked, really. You ladies rock!