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Interview with Carla Stewart

When Carla Stewart talks about lagniappe: “that good ol’ Southern word that means something a little extra,” as she says, ice cream with sprinkles or playing Canasta on the screened-in-porch might come to mind. Carla holds a fondness for the delights of yesteryear. Bygone days are the life’s breath of her stories. Stardust is Carla’s third novel.

Lead question…Carla, you began your career as a nurse then started writing later in life. Could you tell us what sparked your interest in writing and highlight your journey toward publication of your first novel?

Growing up, I loved anything that involved writing – essays, term papers, poetry. Reading was as essential as food to me from an early age, but coming from a down-to-earth, practical family, I was encouraged to choose a career with stability. I loved being a nurse and fed my literary hunger by constantly reading. I always thought I would someday write a book, but when I turned fifty, I realized someday had arrived if I was ever going to get it done. I wrote the first book in four months, went to a writing conference, and was invited by a major publisher to submit. He read it – and now, I’m embarrassed because I was so naïve – but he was gentle in telling me the things that were lacking. He concluded with this – “You have an engaging voice.” Those five words were all I needed to soldier on. I did quite a bit of non-fiction, was honored to be chosen for the Guideposts Writers Workshop, and in 2004, began the novel that would become my first published book – six years after I penned the first sentence.

I have ACFW to thank for that as it was through a paid critique and an agent appointment that I polished the novel, submitted it to Genesis the following year and won my category. In many ways, it seems as if I had a slow road to discovery and publication, but looking back, I see that God’s timing was perfect, as always.

Was there one person or event significant to your publication journey?
A couple of people. Mary DeMuth was an early encourager who gave me affirmation when I was about ready to chuck it all. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Sandra Bishop, my agent, is the other one. She believed in me and got my writing. The day she offered me representation was truly one of celebration.

Who/What spurs you to write? Is your writing inspired by your family?
My dad was a storyteller as were many people in his family. No authors, though. I think I got the gene from him for spinning a yarn. Reading great books also inspires me to be a better writer, to write bigger stories, and to mine the array of emotions that I love in well-written fiction. On a day-to-day basis, my husband, Max, is my rock – the one who cheers with me and listens to my rambling even when he has no idea what I’m talking about. He’s an avid reader and understands the power of a great story. And he never complains about food in soggy take-away bags that sustain us when I’m on a deadline.

Nostalgia does not necessarily equate with rose-colored glasses. How do you incorporate bygone days in your novels and keep your characters realistic?
Times might have changed, but basic human frailties and emotions have not. Who doesn’t long for a mother’s love, to follow a dream, to be a good parent? Although my stories are set firmly in the recent past, they all address age old questions. What does it mean to sacrifice for another person? To be a better person? To forgive? To overcome unfortunate incidents? In Stardust, my upcoming novel, the backdrop is polio and the public hysteria that surrounded it. People saw it or worried about it every single day. My hope is that people will see it as an analogy to media frenzies today. We have different problems, but they are just as real and can be frightening. But just as polio was conquered, so we have hope that today’s ills will also be overcome. One of the delights of historic and nostalgic fiction is that humanity survived and indeed, thrived, which gives us all hope for current times.

From your website, I gather that you appreciate the importance of sharing a cup of coffee or good food. I noticed you’ve contributed to a cookbook, too. How might these “food and comfort” nostalgia feelings relate to your writing?
Women in past eras had coffee klatches where they gossiped and talked about child-rearing or the latest fashions. And most families gathered around a table for meals. It makes me sad that these traditions have gone by the wayside, and now you find people in the “break room” at work or moms gathered at a fast food spot while their kids have a “play date” or perhaps out with friends at a restaurant on Friday night. It’s not the same, but food and drink still signal sharing good times . . . and our hearts. We just do it different today than in yesteryear. And I think most people still celebrate special occasions with a meal – holidays and important life events. In some ways, I think the popularity of food network shows and the proliferation of cookbooks on bookstore shelves is a cry that we still want community. And food is a way to bring that about.

I loved participating in Novel Morsels and sharing recipes from the characters in my novels. I hope we do that again. I have a great recipe I want to share for Pasta Jambalaya☺

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
My faith and love of Jesus will always be part of my novels. It’s my world view, and while not all of my characters are going to agree, the heroes and heroines of my novels will be people of faith. My favorite verse is Micah 6:8 - He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Oh, goodness, how often I fail, but thankfully, I serve a merciful God.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?
I don’t think I’m a good judge of that, but others tell me they hear my characters’ voices and they become real to them. One thing I do that is perhaps unique is pair unlikely characters or images and bring them together in a plot. And I frequently rely on unanswered questions or something that intrigues me from my own past and explore those. I love stories with a well-grounded sense of place and time, so I try to make my settings come alive for readers.

Could you tell us a bit more about Georgia Peyton, your lead character in Stardust.
Georgia is a spunky red-headed young mom in East Texas who was left by her parents in the care of an aunt when she was six years old. Now her traveling salesman husband has left her with only a note in the sugar bowl, but when he washes up on the banks of the bayou, she’s torn between preserving his memory for her girls or being thankful he’s gone. When she inherits a rundown tourist court from a distant relative, she pins her future hopes on a better life, but the guests who arrive are not what she expects. She has to confront the very things she’s tried to avoid—her husband’s philandering and her own past.

Georgia is a character who captured my own heart because she’s determined and at the same time, tender-hearted and dedicated to doing the right thing. I’m really hoping people love Georgia and her story.

What sparked your idea for this novel?
I always have a series of unrelated images that I start with, but a couple were really calling me. One was my desire to write a story with polio as a backdrop as mentioned earlier, but I didn’t want that to be the sole focus. I remembered the old tourist courts with individual cabins like my family had stayed in once and loved the idea of them being a haven for weary travelers (which is a metaphor for the open arms of Jesus and for Georgia in Stardust). Then Max and I took an anniversary trip to East Texas, and I fell in love with the mysterious bayou country and the historical homes, so I knew I’d found my setting. Weaving it all together was tricky, but such a labor of love!

Finish this question. If I could go back in time…
Oh, the possibilities! I could be really spiritual and say I’d love to go back to Biblical times, and who wouldn’t? I’m afraid, though, that I might be one of the scoffers or a Pharisee or one of the ones who bowed down to Pharaoh. That would make me sad, so I’d love to just go back a little ways – to the 1940s. Sure, there was a world war going on, and times were tough with rationing, but people were confident and patriotic and worked together. I think the spirit of our nation during that time spurred us into becoming a land of great people. I love the hairstyles and fashions, the music was so dreamy and fun.

Any parting words?
I’m honored to be able to chat with you today. ACFW is a wonderful organization – nurturing, while at the same time encouraging us all to reach a higher standard. And it’s so good to be with fellow believers on this publishing road. You. Are. Amazing.

Thanks for sharing with us, Carla!

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