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Interview With Bonnie Grove

Her website tagline is “Life is messy. God is love.” This month Bonnie Grove gives us a glimpse of her new release, Talking to the Dead, an unusual tale of the dead talking to the living, and what God’s grace means in this big picture of a messy life.

Bonnie, in your book your heroine Kate continues to hear the voice of her dead husband talking to her. What inspired this unusual story?

My inspiration for Talking to the Dead is difficult to nail down. The novel came in bits and pieces – I’d love to say I was so smart and savvy I had it all planned out, but that’s simply not what happened. In part, the story came out of my experiences as a counselor, sitting with people who attempt to articulate their pain and distress. It occurred to me that many of the things these people were doing (the behaviors I saw) were often an attempt to accomplish something very different that what they were doing – in other words, behavior didn’t match intentions. It caused me to truly see why Jesus commanded us not to judge others. We simply don’t know what’s going on under the surface.

A second inspiration for the novel came from watching how God was always present in the messy lives of these people who were hurting. He mingles with our humanity. And that is the story I wanted to tell; God in the midst of our messy lives.

You have a background in psychology, counseling, and theology. How did this contribute to writing this story? How did it hinder you?

Backgrounds are interesting things – with enough time and experience, they meld into you, shaping you into who you are. We become our backgrounds. I was acutely aware of my training in all three areas while I was writing Talking to the Dead, but what came through strongest for me weren’t the technical details of mental illness and grief, but my worldview as a Christ-follower. It is through the filter of faith and God’s word that I understand psychology. And the story, while having all sorts of interesting psychological twists and descriptions, is more about prevenient grace than it is about mental illness. I practice counseling with the understanding that God is already present in a person’s life – already at work, regardless if the person knows it or not. That is the same approach I used for Kate Davis in the book – the story of a woman in the grip of grace even when she isn’t aware.

I’m not certain of any hindrance my background played, but there were a couple of times my editor pulled me back on some more technical aspects of the mental health industry. For example, one scene had Dr. Alexander running through a checklist of symptoms with Kate who was being weaned off her medication. My editor wrote and said, “Um…maybe not so much?” She was right; it was a case of too much information.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?

Being published is one layer building on another – each significant and necessary. One highlight is the team I have around me, who encourage, help, and support me everyday. I have an agent who helps me understand the road I’m on and reminds me to keep my eyes on the journey ahead. I have an editor who has become a mentor as well as a friend. My publisher (David C. Cook) has believed in me, encouraged me, and in everyway helped me believe in myself. The sales team at Cook all read the book and have done an amazing job of getting it onto shelves and helping book sellers to get excited about it.

I wrote in the acknowledgements section of the novel, “Books are collaborative efforts. Forget the notion of the cloistered writer alone with her thoughts, the romantic myth of isolated keyboard clacking in a mountain cabin. Oh, certainly there is the writing, the idea that belongs wholly to the author (as much as any idea can belong to anyone)—but that alone creates only a manuscript. It takes much more to make a book.”

The more steps I take on the road of published author, the more truth I see in those words.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?

Knowing when to stop. Everyone who works from home understands the challenge of how to keep work and home life separate. During the workday it’s so easy to just run downstairs and throw on a load of laundry. And on the weekend it is tempting to pull myself away from the fun in the backyard with the children and just jot down an idea or two. . . or three.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of learning to love the blurred lines between work and rest, but I’m hoping to find a greater balance. Novel writing takes up large chunks of my brain. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about the book. If I’m not thinking about the book, I think I should be thinking about the book.

I’m working on balance. I talk to my husband about it, I plan my days so I take extended breaks when my children come home from school – things like that.

Ask me in five years how it’s working!

And how do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?

My faith is who I am and it moves and breaths inside of everything I do. Even when I mess up.

Creativity is an attribute of God still deeply instilled in His fallen creation. The writing life, being intensely creative, connects the author to the Creator in a unique way (ask anyone who is engaged in creative endeavors – from knitting to yodeling, dance to scrapbooking – being creative is a spiritual pursuit). For the Christian writer, the act of writing is an act of worship. It is pouring out thanks, and acknowledging the fine details of God interacting with humanity – it is pointing others to the tender fingers of God as they touch the ruddy cheek of His creation.

And while novel writing is about story and structure and refining skill, for me, it is mostly making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing/publishing career?

Oh dear. How can one privilege one moment over another? The truest answer is probably, “the moment I’m experiencing right now.” Talking to the Dead is my debut novel, and it’s only been out for four months, but in that time I’ve been blessed with critical acclaim, wonderful readers who write to share their enjoyment of the book with me (I so love meeting readers), and I’ve been given the chance to keep writing, with another novel coming out next year. These, and so many more are moments I hold in my heart.

Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?

I’m a born storyteller – and I love story in every form. Want my full attention? Tell me a story. It’s why I love counseling, which is so much about listening to the stories of people’s lives and being allowed to enter into them for awhile, to care about them.

I was an actor a lifetime ago, and it was in my training as an actor that I learned the subtleties of character, setting, subtext, action, and various other elements of compelling stories.

Writing is one thing that ties my life experiences together. No matter what I was doing, where I was working, I was writing.

The ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes a character will walk out of the past and I will recognize the person and how they fit into the story. Other times, a character will simply appear and I will have to spend time getting to know him or her.

My most recent novel idea (not my WIP, but another novel I pray will see the light of bookstore shelves) first came while I was in conversation with my husband over dinner. We were talking about how love can change us – and suddenly there stood before my imagination a town filled with people who were waiting to be changed by love.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?

I have a definite voice, strong and easily identifiable. I have a style of writing that falls in line with how I have always perceived storytelling, be it on a stage as an actor or around the campfire, or on the page: less is more.
As an actor, I believed in letting the audience fill in the details of meaning for themselves. I sketched it out for them, then left it alone, I worked to find smaller gestures which conveyed greater meaning. I learned to respect the audience as savvy and perceptive.

I’ve carried this with me into the world of writing. I see my readers as intelligent, quick minded, emotionally complex. I have every confidence they will perceive and understand without needing to be taken by the hand and shown in detail what it is I am saying.

Lastly, I write inside the parameters of magical realism – places that are very much like our own, but carry with them something “other”. Like walking outside and breathing the autumn air, only to find you can’t breath out right away. Something is different.

Finish this question. God’s grace is…

. . . my daily requirement.

Any parting words?

I attended a writer’s conference this summer and was struck by how earnest and serious hopeful writers are. This is a good thing, of course, and I was inspired by it. But I was also alarmed by it, when it became clear this earnest seriousness was unrelenting. Even in the wee hours of the night, groups of stern faced unpublished writers met in groups and spoke tightfistedly of their work.

Please, in the midst of your determination to become a great writer – have some fun. Let go of the yearning and the effort and run barefoot with small children, eat ice cream, sing off key, and laugh at your friend’s bad jokes. Forget writing sometimes, forget books, forget social networking and query letters forget the publishing industry for a while and embrace the full force of joy available to you. You’ll feel better, and it will make you a better writer.

Thanks for sharing with us, Bonnie!

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