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Interview with Eleanor K. Gustafson

Forty years in the writing business means Eleanor Gustafson has seen a lot of changes and gained a lot of experience. Here, she shares with us the story behind her latest novel, as well as some of the wisdom she’s picked up through the years.


You've been writing stories for 40 years. How has your writing changed in that time and how has the process in general changed in that time?
I knew little about writing back then. I recognized good writing when I saw it but never had the benefit of actually learning how to write. I started with articles and short stories, then took a big breath and tackled a novel. At my first writers’ conference, one relatively big-name author told me I wrote Mandarin English—without defining what that meant. After lunch, another Somebody nearly fell asleep reading my sample. The Zondervan lady left late afternoon, but I didn’t think I had a chance there. Someone suggested I write her and send a chapter or two. She wanted the whole thing, and we were off and running. Heart-attack, though, when I got the edited manuscript back: characters, whole chapters, setting elements—trashed. I picked myself off the floor, and Appalachian Spring later became my best-selling novel. Back then, the publisher did all the marketing. How times have changed!

You say that God touched you and speaks to you through story. Can you tell us more about that and how it relates to your writing journey?
I learned Story on my mother’s lap, then read insatiably and earned my glasses early on. When I grew beyond Nancy Drew and cowboy stories, I happened on classics where a lot more was going on than the formula tales I cut my teeth on. Story can convey Truth more powerfully than even a fine sermon, and I’m into that. God planted a drama gene in my heart, and I have always yearned for love and adventure in settings I could never otherwise experience. Story allows you to try on life, to see what works and what doesn’t.

Where do your story ideas come from?
I used to make up stories before falling asleep, probably fostered by stuff I’d read. Book endings, though, seldom satisfied, and I’d tromp through fields and woods to develop an alternate “happily ever after.” At least three of my novels grew out of these made-up tales, redrawing whatever characters were substantial enough to support a novel.

Where does the phrase "an unpresentable glory" come from and what does it mean or represent? (Don't give away anything about your book!)
The Preface tells it right up front. Here is an edited portion:

THE NIGHT BEFORE MY HUSBAND’S dad died, I volunteered to take the night shift, as a urinary infection made him restless. I sat beside him, serving him—my father-in-law—as needed. But through those difficult hours, I felt I was on holy ground, the room peopled with angels.

This awkward stint of servanthood affected me profoundly, eventually moving me to write
An Unpresentable Glory. Whatever hidden, “unpresentable” ways He asks us to serve may reflect God’s glory more vividly than our more well-dressed benevolences. . . .

This unpresentable thread is woven across political, gardening, and Native American venues through various acts of kindness and caring that similarly need protection from public view. Over all of these happenings, God’s glory is revealed through a developing fabric of strength, courage, spiritual growth, responsibility, and love.

The bottom line: God can cover our messes with His glory—if we submit to and trust Him wholeheartedly.


How do you spend your non-writing time?
I wish I could list gardening, bird watching, knitting, doing puzzles, tree farming. Been there; done all of those, but times have changed. I write; I edit; I deal with glitches on every front you can think of; I do promo things; I write blogs—my own and as a guest; I do chores that have to be done (like cooking, which I hate). Then I collapse. Sudoku helps, but even reading can be difficult. Going to bed is a pleasure, in that my husband reads to me every night. He is currently reading my first novel, Appalachian Spring, the book that turned out pretty well—Mandarin English and all. I am finding much pleasure in that. I believe used copies are still available online.

What books are on your to-be-read list?
I am currently reading Sigrid Fowler’s Don’t Tell the Rabbi. Next will come Ward Tanneberg’s Redeeming Grace, and Brenda Cox’s Tethered: The life of Henrietta Hall Shuck, The First American Woman Missionary to China. I like Anne Perry mysteries, and Eugene Peterson’s Pastor is also on my list.

What Scriptures inspire your writing?
I cycle through the Bible on a regular basis. There are easy parts (history sections) and hard parts—Judges being one of the more disagreeable slices of Bible reading. I love the Old Testament as the intensely important platform from which the Gospels and epistles were launched. With scripture, I read slowly—a few paragraphs at a time—and try to fit each part into my own life. It usually takes years for me to complete a whole-Bible cycle.

Some authors who have influenced me profoundly include Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey, and C.S. Lewis.

Which of your stories has been the most fulfilling to write? Which has been the most difficult?
Probably The Stones: A Novel of the Life of King David—on both counts. I grew up loving the David story and felt a strong compulsion to fill in the blanks and put flesh on the bones. What a story! Romance, tragedy, drama, betrayal, jealously, conflict, love, forgiveness, redemption, AND David as the messianic forerunner. I had to search the entire Bible, finding such tidbits as clothing and eye makeup in the Prophets, sacrificial laws in Leviticus, and Jesus as the son of David being traced all through the New Testament. I did the obligatory trip to Israel, talked with Old Testament people, and honed my storytelling skills. The whole process took roughly 15 years, and I wrote another novel during those years of research and searching for a publisher.

How do you overcome the feeling of being stuck or blocked in your writing?
The art of editing keeps me on track. Write the best you can today, then quit. Tomorrow, more stuff will show up. Each day brings a new perspective, and as your brain cells rearrange, your writing takes on new life. This process makes for slow writing, but the finished product is infinitely better than just hustling to get it done.

What are three things you must have nearby when you're writing?
A cup of water. Pens for writing and for checking off my vast collection of lists. And of course, my wonderful, 22-inch iMac.

Any parting words?
I am grateful for our ACFW writing community. So many times, I’ve asked a question or sent out a request, and many of you have been quick to respond. I love you all and wish you well in your own writing.

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Lisa Bartelt is a child of the flatlands fulfilling her dream of living near mountains in Pennsylvania. She loves reading, writing and listening to stories—true ones, made-up ones and the ones in between—preferably with a cup of coffee in hand. Wife, mom of two, writer, ordinary girl, Lisa blogs about books, faith, family and the unexpected turns of life at http://lisabartelt.com.






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