Find a Christian store

Interview with Allison Pittman

Allison Pittman describes herself as a person who has “always been a writer.” She started early, sharing stories verbally with her mother before she could write. Allison took telling bedtime stories to another level—she’d create her own as she lulled herself to sleep with a new chapter every night. God called Allison to write and she said she was “thrilled” to answer His prompting. So she left her 20-year career as a teacher to follow her dreams.

Now a successful author, Allison counts her readers as one of God’s many blessings in her life.

The ever-so-gracious Allison took time out of her busy writing schedule to speak with Alexis A. Goring in an official author interview for ACFW. Here’s what she had to say about her writing career, latest book On Shifting Sand, faith in God, and why she loves San Antonio, Texas!

What inspired you to write your latest book On Shifting Sand, which just released?
This is always the hardest question to answer. I loved writing about the dynamics of marriage with my Sister Wife series. But then, a story of a marriage needs conflict, and I’ve yet to see a CBA novel really tackle the idea of adultery in a way that showed it to be a conscientious, willful sin, disassociated from the circumstances of the marriage, or the relationship between the husband and wife. Too often, it was a backstory to justify a divorced character. Or it was a series of close calls, but never fully realized. I wanted to bring the reader through it in real time, portraying it as sin.

Pure and simple, but unique in the fact that it reaches beyond the sinner, and carries with it a risk in confession. And then, I wanted to write a story that follows through a journey of restoration—not simply coming back to Christ, but coming back to life. It took a bit for all the pieces to come together, and so many of them weren’t discovered until I was buried in the story. More than any of my books, inspiration for this story came bit by bit.

Share your elevator pitch for On Shifting Sand.
This particular book never lived as a pitch. So, this is going to be pretty awful, and make me so happy I had the opportunity to hone the story over countless conversations with my editors and agent.

Here goes: Nola Merrill, uneasy in her marriage and battered by the relentless storms of Oklahoma dust, seeks escape in the dangerously enticing attention of a mysterious drifter.

Hopefully that wouldn’t make you punch a button to get off one floor early. Seriously, elevator pitches! Why do we do that to people?

Why did you write your latest book and what do you hope your readers will take away from it?
Let me start by saying I do have a huge fear about this book: I worry that readers won’t like my protagonist. Because truthfully, there are moments when they shouldn’t—there were moments when I didn’t. I hope they’ll be brave enough to recognize the grit of sin, but then to experience the cleansing power of grace. God’s omniscience can be terrifying, you know?

The same idea of God knowing ALL can bring comfort or conviction. I want readers to feel Nola’s conviction, and find it in their hearts forgive her. (Yes, I know she’s fictional. Just go with me here…) Because if they can stick with her for 300 or so pages and extend her grace, maybe they’ll have a new grasp on God’s grace for us.

Look, sometimes I can’t imagine anybody more undeserving of God’s grace than myself. Like, moments when sin cuts so deep I can’t bring myself to confess them out loud to an empty room. We all feel that way sometimes, and we’ll turn that guilt and shame against ourselves. Suffer, needlessly. I want readers to know that there’s no sin too grievous for grace.

Who are your main characters in On Shifting Sand and what makes them unique? Share details on their journey and struggles.
Russ and Nola Merrill’s marriage is steady. Comfortable, even though it started under less than ideal circumstances when Russ was a young preacher and Nola four months pregnant at the time of their wedding. While Russ’ love for her has always been unshakable and true, Nola came to him and gave herself to him as a way to escape caustic barbs of her stern, unloving father. Still, it has been a good marriage blessed with two children. Russ’ pastoral career thrives; their home is cozy. But the economic disaster of the Great Depression has taken its toll on their modest hardware business, and the unrelenting dust storms uncover feelings of unworthiness Nola has kept buried for all these years.

I think what makes Nola unique as a CBA heroine is that she’s a dark, unreliable narrator. She lies to herself, so she’s lying to us, too. She keeps us on edge and—like I said in a previous question—probably will make readers uncomfortable. Russ, well, he’s that steady Christian rock of a man that will seem more familiar, but he’s frustrating, too. At the back of his mind, he’s constantly feeling like he has to prove his worthiness to his congregation, so on one level he’s a super dedicated pastor, but that dedication comes at an expense.

You’re the author of twelve novels including Stealing Home, which won a Carol Award! Congratulations! How many years did it take you to write those twelve novels? Share the joy—and challenges—you found in the journey.
My first novel released in spring 2006. So, nine years? I’m just now figuring that out…how is that even possible? I had a few years with twp books releasing in a single year, so there was some doubling up.

The challenge has been the same for every single title—opening up that Word document and filling up the screen. The joy has been the same, too. Opening up that Word document and filling up the screen.

Seriously, though. The challenge is always The Next Idea. Whether it’s the next series, the next book, the next sentence. There’s always the fear that there’ll be nothing new, or fresh. That’s why we have to take risks.

One of my favorite “joy” moments came years ago, when I was signing my credit card receipt at a Cracker Barrel and the cashier said, “Oh, Allison Pittman. One of my favorite authors is named Allison Pittman.” I mean, come on!

What would you say are the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a novelist?
Did I mention the Word documents?

What do you love about writing historical fiction?
I love that it gives me a template. I would go crazy in a contemporary work… Write a story about a woman… But, if I have…Write a story about a woman in the 1930’s…Goodness, half of the story is there. The environment is alive, I just need to find the untold story within it. I can sit and brainstorm, think of everything I know, and then write a story about what I don’t. I love uncovering the details of the setting, and making them explode in the story and define the character.

What do you love most about living in San Antonio, TX? Do you get inspiration for your stories there? Please explain.
Oh, San Antonio. Follow me on Facebook and you’ll know how much I love, love my city. Three things: Breakfast tacos, HEB, and Spurs. Pretty much in that order.

I haven’t yet tapped into the city for a story, but I have some ideas. A few months ago my husband and I spent a great, cloudy day wandering around the Institute of Texan Cultures here, and I just clicked away with pictures and notes, ready for the next brainstorming session.

How has being a member of ACFW helped you in your writing career?
Coming into Christian publishing is kind of like being a new kid at school, wandering around with your lunch tray. You don’t know how you’re going to fit into the market, if you’ll find an audience.

ACFW is like that big, friendly, cool table. I’ve met so many great, great writers at the conference—writers who are where I am in their career. I’ve had a chance to work with up-coming writers, too, taking mentor appointments and doing critiques. That has helped me grow so much in my own confidence. And my chapter? Such a blessing to get to meet with them every month. Sometimes we have speakers, but sometimes we just chat around the table, sharing our frustrations and triumphs. I actually like those meetings the best! It’s important to have a sense of community—it keeps you both encouraged and humble.

Tell me about your work as a Bible and writing teacher at a private Christian high school. When did you start working there? Why did you start working there? How do you still find time to write?
I started working there in fall of 2013, so I’ve been there for two years. I’ve always had some sort of part-time teaching gig happening throughout my publishing career. So, I didn’t “quit my day job,” I just reduced it to part-time. The reason? Well, I do absolutely love teaching, but let’s face it…I have two boys in college, and one as a student in this private school. Tuition, tuition, tuition.

But I love my students—my “girls” especially in my Bible class. Since I didn’t have daughters, I get to be a part of all of their lives. I have one day a week that is a reading day, and I read both of the Sister Wife novels, and I’m currently reading Lilies in Moonlight. I love that shout of protest at the end of a chapter…talk about affirming!

It has, though, made finding writing time a challenge. I only teach part-time, so unlike full-time teachers, I never bring work home. My evenings and weekends are free. I have one evening a week that is solid writing time (like, from 5-10 pm), and I put in hours on Saturday. That said, I’m woefully behind on word count, but I always am.

What is your favorite book and how did it impact your life?
My favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I initially read it because I kept seeing it referenced in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and wanted to know what it was about…and it was love at first reading. I read it over and over, just about every year. It impacted me because it told such a beautiful story of sacrifice for the sake of education. I guess it’s the teacher in me, but the choices that family makes are so heartbreaking and brave.

I love that the whole first chapter centers around taking out a library book, getting peppermint candy, and sitting down to read. I love that (Spoiler!!!) Officer McShane has always been waiting, perfectly and patiently, and that the child will have his name. It’s simultaneously gritty and idyllic.

There’s this great scene where Francie has told a lie in order to take a couple of left-over, crushed pies home to her family for Christmas. Her teacher tells her, after praising her writing ability, that she should always tell the truth, and write the lie. But Francie can see the truth in fiction. A made-up story isn’t a lie; it’s a truth that hasn’t happened. That’s what I like to think my stories are—tales of truth that might not have ever happened.

Who is your favorite author and how does that person inspire your writing?
I know it sounds cheesy and evasive, but I really don’t have a favorite. I have several authors I really enjoy, but I have a broad spectrum of what I like to read, and a short attention span. That said, if it weren’t for Lynn Austin, I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d never heard of Christian fiction (really…). I was at a writers’ conference trying to figure out how I could carve out a career as a humor columnist, and I won a copy of Eve’s Daughters as a door prize. I read half of it in one night, and in the morning knew that this is what I wanted to do with my gift.

What are your greatest goals for your writing career?
I just want to keep writing and writing until some reviewer says something with the phrase “an Allison Pittman book.” You know? (That didn’t seem as prideful in my head.) But I want to make an impact not for my “type” of setting—like the early twentieth century, or frontier, or whatever—but for what I deliver as an author. Goodness, I don’t even know what that means. Let’s just say my goal is another contract!

Share the story of how you landed a literary agent and your first book deal.
I landed the book deal before I landed the agent, breaking almost every convention of the process. I’d gone to a workshop on dialogue presented by Rod Morris (with Multnomah at the time). I had an appointment with him, showed him my pages, and learned that I’d broken every “rule” from his workshop! But he liked the story, and asked me to send him the first three chapters. I was terrified, and didn’t. The next year, I met with him again. He remembered me. Asked for the story. I didn’t have a single word more than I’d had the year before, and I didn’t send it.

The next year, repeat. BUT—I had the sense to know this couldn’t go on. So I sent three chapters of an unfinished manuscript. A few months later, he requested the full story. It wasn’t finished, but I wrote like crazy. When I saw him at the next year’s conference, I had a three-book deal. That first novel was Ten Thousand Charms. It was a double RITA finalist, which was exciting!

The next year, I met my agent, Bill Jensen. We clicked immediately! He’s actually given me the spark of the idea for all three of my All for a… series, as well as my current project.

Reflecting on the past, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
It would have to be when I got the email from Jan Stob at Tyndale asking me if I would ever consider writing a story about the early Mormon church. I wasn’t an author for Tyndale at the time; I’d been presented with an offer from both Tyndale and Multnomah for my second series, and had decided to go with Multnomah. But two things happened with that email.

First, it affirmed the idea that the publishing business was more than just business. They had an idea for a story, and Jan remembered my writing and thought I would be a good fit. OK, in hindsight, I can see the business side of it, but first and foremost it was a confirmation of my craft. Within five minutes of that email I had created the character of Nathan Fox—one of the strongest, most dimensional characters of all my stories. I know it was a contract nightmare, but I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity to write those stories.

I experience more spiritual warfare with the creation of those books than any other I’ve ever done, but I think they represent some of the best of my writing. They both went on to final for the Christy, which is cool, but I also got more reader emails in response than with any other book. Not all of it good, mind you. Some pretty scary, but they were spiritually IMPORTANT stories. Years since their release, and I still get emails on a weekly basis for a third (or more) book. So, that’s the other significant lesson. I wanted to write a slew of books for that series, but we stopped at two. And, those two books are doing amazing things in people’s lives. God’s plan is always sufficient.

Describe your writing space. What makes it special to you?
Up until this year, when the twins went to college, my writing space was literally a couch. Sometimes a dining room table, or Panera Bread. But mostly a couch. Then, practically as the little Subaru backed down the driveway, one of the bedrooms was turned into an office.

I still have the bed in there for home visits, but it’s green and girly, with a long table for my desk and a looming picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Who, upon his first visit home, my son thought was Lizzie Borden. Like, why would I have a Lizzie Borden picture?) Every writing session, I turn on the little lamp, turn on the ceiling fan (if it’s summer), and turn on my candle warmer. And…write. And eat Twizzlers.

What is your greatest hope for your family of five?
My hope is simple—that we will seek the Lord in all we do. That we will always forgive each other the way he forgives us. That we will love each other the way he loves us. Plus, I want us to laugh a lot, and take multi-generational trips to Disney World. I want us to keep creating stories to tell.

How does your faith in God play into your storytelling?
Here’s the thing. I am so amazed—every day—that God loves me. Really. Sometimes, I just have to stop and reassure myself that all of this is true. My sins are forgiven. I have an assured eternity with him. He loves me. He died FOR ME. And, like I said, there are times when I can’t think of a person more undeserving of that than myself. But, God does love me, in spite of it all. I try to create characters that seem undeserving on the page. But then, I love them, and I would love them whether or not they ever sought to redeem themselves in God’s eyes. One of my favorite characters, Nathan Fox from the Sister Wife series, (SPOILER) doesn’t come to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. Not in the books, not in my imagined life for him after the end. And I love him with this deep, longing, aching love. I want that for him so badly, but he just…can’t.

I love them as they are—where they are. I love writing characters who don’t see their sin as “sin,” because they don’t know better. They’re not ashamed, because they have no concept of another life. And then, there’s the moment when they see another way. I don’t like “seeking” characters, because where’s the challenge there? They’re seeking, they find, the end. I like for them to stumble a bit. I like them to sin. Really, really sin. Because I sin. Really, really sin. But God is faithful to forgive. In fact, I come to confession already forgiven. So, for my characters, I love writing those moments in the early chapters knowing a plan of forgiveness has already been put in place.

As a writer, what do you want your legacy to be?
One of the great things about Facebook is that, as a teacher, I’m able to keep up with former students. And while it might be a stretch to say I was this huge influence, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your students becoming teachers (and doctors, and professors, and soldiers, and parents, and realtors, and actresses and…). Just good overall human beings, contributing to society.

As a writer, I see a much more narrow legacy to seek. I would love to read an interview like this one day, and have that author say that he or she was inspired to write by reading one of my books. Better yet—all of them! I’m a writer because I want to contribute what so many other writers have contributed. I want one single line from one single story to become something that sticks.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Allison!

For more great interviews, visit our Author Interview Archives.

ACFW Members, click here to apply for an author interview!

Developed by Camna, LLC

This is a service provided by ACFW, but does not in any way endorse any publisher, author, or work herein.