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Interview with Carre Gardner

Carre Armstrong Gardner writes from Portland, Maine where she lives with her family and two dogs. The stories she loves the most are those about the ordinary lives of ordinary people because she thinks every life is a fascinating drama. After all, aren't we all the hero of our own stories?

Better All the Time is book two in a three part series coming on the heels of All Right Here. Where did you come up with the idea for the Darling Family?
The idea actually started years ago with a Lands' End catalog. You know how you get company catalogs season after season, and the models are all the same people? Sometimes, you even get to watch them grow older over the years. You look at those catalogs enough and the models start to feel like family. Well, Lands' End has a blonde model, a brunette, and a redhead, and they’re always posed together, lounging around the cabin in their pajamas, drinking coffee… What I saw was a family with a blonde sister, a brunette, and a redhead, and that was all I needed: I was off! The trouble with writers is that they have too many ideas floating around, ready to attach to any little hook. A germ of an idea can blossom into a full-blown novel—or series—literally overnight. And that’s what happened with The Darlings, sometime between the spring and fall issues of Lands' End one year. Also, my mom used to be a teacher, and she had students with the last name of Darling, and I just thought that was the coolest name ever. It instantly brings a certain warmth to mind. I think I was a teenager when I latched onto that name and decided I’d use it in a book one day.

What did you enjoy most about writing Better All the Time?
I think it was Mitch and Amy’s rocky friendship that finally resolves into the promise of something more. I just love Mitch. I come from a family of carpenters, so in my mind, real men know how to build stuff. Mitch is so tough, with such a bad-boy background: I loved making him fall for someone as unexpected as Amy. He’s exactly what someone like prickly, black-and-white Amy needs, but she’s clueless and completely focused on her job. Poor Mitch! Better days are ahead for them in Book 3. (True story: Mitch was originally named Jack, but I was writing it during a time when every romantic hero in fiction seemed to be named Jack. My daughter had a friend on her ski team named Mitch Harris, so I borrowed his name instead.)

Often our own writing speaks to us as we wrestle through with our characters. What is one thing you personally learned while writing Better All the Time?
Sephy’s journey ended up being a sort of low-rent therapy for me. When I wrote Better All the Time, I was overweight, although I didn’t share Sephy’s struggle with obesity. After the book was finished, I thought that if I believed what I had written, I really should have the integrity to lose weight myself. So I took the same journey Sephy took, and I lost 40 lbs. My author picture doesn’t even look like me anymore: I probably should change that. But as far as the inward journey Sephy takes in the book, I’d already been through that. Like Sephy, I was once a self-effacing people-pleaser—unhappily so—and I had a terrible self-esteem. It was difficult for me to revisit that, because I want to look back at the person I was and shake her, and say, “Love yourself! Stand up for yourself!” As Christian women, we can be susceptible to the idea that being “nice” and inoffensive at all costs is the same as being Christlike. But God wants us to treat ourselves with the same compassion and respect we’d offer to any person created in His image. To do less than that is to treat ourselves as a special exception to Christ’s rule: it is the opposite of humility. I wish I could write this lesson into the life of every woman like I wrote it into Sephy’s.

If you could sit down and have coffee with one of your characters from Better All The Time, who would it be and why? What would you want to talk about?
Undoubtedly, it would be Ivy. I just love how pragmatic she is: she calls a spade a spade and deals with the situation as it is, but she’s not without her vulnerabilities. Plus, I think she’s funny. She reminds me a lot of my own twin sister, who is one of my favorite people to spend time with. If we had coffee together, we’d talk about the trials and triumphs of raising teenagers: a subject with more than enough fodder to get us through two or three pots of coffee, at least.

Where do your story and character ideas come from?
They nearly always come from the tiniest of everyday details: a particular word or phrase someone uses; a yard sale I pass; models in the Land’s End catalog… They happen in the shower, or when I’m driving, or observing people in the grocery store. For example, I was talking to a patient not that long ago (I’m a nurse,) and he said, in his particular vernacular, that his wife “come down with diabeetus.” Instantly, this whole character blossomed to life in my head, and…voila! He’s part of Book 3 (due for release July, 2016.) Nobody is safe from me: anything you say can and will be used in a novel someday. The bane of my existence is that ideas come constantly and fast, while writing is a slow process: I have too many ideas to ever get them all written about.

What (or who) has been the biggest influence in your writing career?
It was my own love of reading as a child. I was that kid who carried a book along everywhere, in case real life got boring. Novels absolutely transported me to other worlds: it’s the closest thing to magic that exists in this world. The idea that I might be able to transport other people that way has been one of the most compelling forces in my life. As an adult, I spent several years as part of an online community of writers and readers where I could post stories a chapter at a time and get instant reviews and feedback. I had never experienced anything as intoxicating as writing a story that other people loved. I look back on those stories now and cringe a little because they’re so full of commas and adverbs and me handing the reader the conclusion I want them to come to…but it’s also very sweet, because that was where I learned to be a writer. There’s another truism about writing that says you have to write 500,000 words (some say a million) before you find your voice. That community was where I found mine. Writing is usually such a solitary pursuit: I don’t know if I would have survived my life as a fledgling writer if I hadn’t had that constant feedback and encouragement.

I see that you and your family worked as missionaries in Russia for several years. How do you feel that has shaped you and your writing?
Life and work on the mission field usually looks very different from what the church back home expects or wants to hear. Churches are used to getting a quarterly newsletter from someone in Africa that says, “Praise God: x-number of people were baptized this summer, and we held this great evangelistic campaign in July, and we raised a hundred thousand dollars for our new van!” But those are the rare high spots: the day-to-day realities are hardly ever like that. While we were in Russia, we didn’t communicate via a quarterly newsletter that hit the high spots: we had a blog that we updated several times a week or month. And what were we supposed to say: that we successfully gave the taxi driver directions and somehow ended up at the right destination, but he cheated us on the fare, and our language skills were too poor for us to argue with him? Yes: that’s exactly what we had to say. So I learned to present little, everyday details in an entertaining way. And the people back home loved it. Over and over, missions committees told us that our blog was by far their favorite of their missionary communiques. And not once did we write about evangelistic campaigns, baptisms, or financial miracles. It taught me that you can write about everyday life in a way that people will love and find compelling. And everyday life is exactly what my books are about.

What author(s) do you look up to? And why?
My gold standards are Maeve Binchy and Jan Karon. Both of them write about the ordinary lives of ordinary people, which is my favorite thing to read about. Both are international best-sellers, proving that other people love that too. Maeve Binchy wrote about the daily tragedies and triumphs of Catholic Ireland. Jan Karon’s stories are about an aging Episcopal priest and his small town in the mountains of North Carolina. Both authors take such loving care with their characters that you can’t help but be fascinated. Karon, in particular, writes stories in which the Gospel is central, but she does it in such an organic way that you’re halfway in before you realize you’re reading what could be called “Christian fiction.” There’s nothing didactic or agenda-driven about her books: they’re something I would be proud to recommend to my atheist friend or agnostic neighbor. And that has become my own goal as a writer: to write from a place of faith in a way that draws people into the message no matter what place they’re starting from themselves.

What are you currently reading?
Too many things to keep track of! Let’s see…I’ll go through the stack beside my bed. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a Phryne Fisher Mysteries trilogy by Kerry Greenwood; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver; Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish; by Thomas Hardy; The Spirituality of Imperfection by Kurtz & Ketcham; Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy (a re-read.) On audiobook, I’m re-listening to the Flavia DeLuce mysteries by Alan Bradshaw as I cook or wash dishes. And that’s just my summer reading.

Care to share a quote or verse that’s important to you?
Sure! I’ll share a poem that’s become my manifesto for writing. It’s called “Takes Talent,” by Don Marquis:

there are two
kinds of human
beings in the world
so my observation
has told me
namely and to wit
as follows
those who
even though they
were to reveal
the secret of the universe
to you would fail
to impress you
with any sense
of the importance
of the news
and secondly
those who could
communicate to you
that they had
just purchased
ten cents worth
of paper napkins
and make you
thrill and vibrate
with the intelligence

What’s up next for you and your writing? Care to share what you’re working on?
I’m working on a futuristic sci-fi trilogy about teenagers who get transported to another planet. So much for the ordinary lives of ordinary people! But the first book is almost finished, and my agent is excited about it. On the other hand, I may find myself sitting at a traffic light later today and be struck by a completely different idea, and find myself going off in a different direction altogether. Anything’s possible!

Any parting words?
I’d love to make a plug for leaving reviews. If you read All Right Here or Better All the Time, would you mind leaving a review of it at Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes & Noble? More reviews mean more sales, and I’d love to spread the word about my books. So love your author: leave a review!

Thanks for letting me spend a few minutes with you. It’s been an absolute pleasure!

Thanks for sharing with us, Carre!

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