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Interview With Carla Stewart

Your debut book, Chasing Lilacs, is considered a coming-of-age story. Can you explain what that means and which age group would receive the most enjoyment from the book?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, coming-of-age is the attainment of prominence, respectability, recognition, or maturity. To me it also means going through a passage or discovering truth, which more closely describes Chasing Lilacs. Sammie’s quest is to learn whether or not her mother—whose mental problems lead to suicide—loved her. In the course of a year, Sammie fully enters adolescence while going through this personal journey, so I think Chasing Lilacs qualifies as coming-of-age.

Adults have told me they identify with what it was like to be an adolescent, but mature teens have also enjoyed the book and liked reading what it was like in another era. Since dealing with difficult situations and people is common no matter what the era, my hope is that the take away value and enjoyment will span both age groups.

Was the 1958 setting a help or a hindrance in writing and selling this manuscript?
Writing about this era was very fun for me – I grew up in the fifties and sixties, so it felt familiar. Since it’s not really historical nor contemporary, I suppose it was a hindrance to finding the right publisher. The biggest obstacle, though, was having a child narrator. It’s hard to write a compelling story that will satisfy an adult audience. Perhaps that’s why I wrote so many drafts – I was determined to get it right, and I really believed in the story.

I read a post where you attribute your faith, craft education, and perseverance as important to your writing journey. Was that it, or was there something else significant to your publication journey?
Faith undergirds everything I do, and somehow I always believed I would have a novel published. Waiting can be hard, but that is the time to work on craft and keep plugging away (writing all those drafts and even moving on to another story) but I also believe timing is a key element in getting published. For me, the wait led to not only a stronger manuscript, but also signing with an agent who wasn’t even in the business when I began pitching this book. Sometimes it’s getting the right combination at just the right moment. Looking back, it was worth the wait.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Lately, I’ve not done a very good job since I’ve spent so much time marketing. My house could use a good cleaning ☺ I am fortunate, though, in that I’m an empty nester and don’t work outside the home, so I have all day to write and pursue other things. My challenge this summer has been in finding time to squeeze grandkid visits in, but I’m happy to say that we’ve just had some great times with all of our grandkids in the past few weeks, and now I’m geared up and ready to work on a new project.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
As a Christian, I believe in the power of story to change lives. I love the challenge of revealing God’s truth through metaphors and the actions of the characters. Showing the convicting power and comforting presence of the Holy Spirit to guide characters is one way I like to do that. Sometimes it is that still small voice that carries the most conviction. Having experienced God’s mercy and grace on many occasions myself makes it a given that I will also convey that in my novels.

What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing/publishing career?
Since I only have ONE book published so far (don’t worry – another one is coming soon!), I’m not sure. There have been some amazing milestones. One would be the first year that I won the Genesis contest for the novel that is now Chasing Lilacs. It was a lovely, surreal moment. Another emotional time for me was when I received a call and was offered representation by my amazing agent. To know that someone believed in my story and “got me” was very affirming. Of course, I squealed when the contract offer came, too, but it was more of a squeak since I wasn’t able to announce the sale until the contract arrived – a long four months later.

Had you purposely planned the Chasing Lilacs juxtaposition between nostalgia and mental depression?
Yes. The idea for the story came from my curiosity as a child when I heard people whisper about “nerve” problems (as they were called then) and the occasional mention of someone having shock treatments. It was not talked about openly, so as a novelist, I wanted to explore what that might have been like for a young girl to have a mom with those problems. It made sense to set it in the time when I first had those questions.

Chasing Lilacs received 30 rejections before you sold it and yet it has a 5 star rating on Amazon. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m thankful today for all those rejections! Most of them came before I discovered ACFW in 2006. That year I attended my first ACFW conference, where I received affirmation about the story and a request from an agent who recommended I have a freelance editor look at the story. It was an eye opening experience which led to a stronger novel and ultimately to publication. Nothing is wasted on our writing journeys if we allow ourselves to be teachable and keep striving for excellence. I hope that the five star rating is because I’ve done that. The bigger reward, though, has been the personal messages I’ve received from readers who’ve told me the story has touched them and made a difference in their lives. That’s what writing is all about.

Finish this sentence: If you see me at a book signing or conference, I want you to say…
“After you sign my book, could we get some coffee?”

Now that the novel of your heart is published, what’s next?
My second novel, Broken Wings, comes out next June. It’s a contemporary story of an unlikely friendship between two women who are going through difficult transitions. It also has a strong nostalgic thread that parallels the events in the story.

Any parting words?
I am so grateful for the opportunity to be an ACFW featured author. I’m sure that without ACFW my writing career wouldn’t be where it is today. What an amazing organization! Thank you for this interview and asking really great questions. I’ve enjoyed having to stretch my thinking skills here today. Love it!

Thanks for sharing with us, Carla!

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