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Interview with Joan C. Benson

Author Joan C. Benson’s dream of publishing her debut novel, His Gift, began years ago when she first came up with the concept and began her research. Before she could dedicate the necessary time to see the book to its completion, however, she had to address varied topics such as killer stingrays and Shaquille O’Neal! I recently talked with Joan about His Gift and her journey to publication.

Welcome, Joan. Please tell us about your new book.
His Gift is my debut historical fiction novel which I chose to write from an inspirational, Christian perspective for a wide span of ages, despite the age of the main character being seventeen/eighteen. Because of the universal theme, many adults have reviewed the novel favorably, much to my joy.

How long did it take to write His Gift?
Its conception and initial research began many years ago. Eventually, I had the opportunity to do onsite research in Michigan, and from that point, I felt I was armed with the information I needed to get serious. I was still teaching full time, and in between the most hectic months of the year (August through mid-June), I wrote educational curriculum and ancillary materials. Contract writing deadlines demanded completion and usually zapped my creative energy for anything else.

This book is historical fiction based on a true story. Whose story?
The story is based on real-life events that occurred in my mother’s life at the onset of the Great Depression. After my mother passed away I read some of her teen diaries which helped me understand my then young mother’s heartfelt emotions better.

Those diaries from your mother must have been a treasure trove.
They were small and not massive in quantity, but they put in touch with the young girl I needed to know. They helped me feel her sensibilities and her goals and passions. And the language helped me too—all those “golly gee whizzes.”

What kind of research did you do on the Great Depression? Is the story of Molly’s family typical for the time?
It’s interesting and complex because this story would fairly represent only a small slice of American life. I would say it does a fair job of representing “middle-class Americans” at that time in that part of the country. The Great Depression impacted the people of Appalachia in contrasting ways as they were already poor and became impoverished to the extent that many couldn’t even feed their children, thus creating orphan trains. Then we also know the very wealthy had completely different experiences, which I bring out in the story.

Your character, Molly participated in the student piano competition and was interested in the Detroit Symphony. Did those scenes require a lot of research?
My memory of my mother telling the story about her own audition were and are still vivid. Beyond that, I am a trained classical pianist and competed in various musical competitions during high school. I knew what a performer would feel emotionally before, during, and after pouring out his/her heart into the task. I also attended many concerts as a child while my mother taught piano at MacMurray College, in Jacksonville, IL

My mother was part of a group of talented and accredited music teachers in my hometown in Kansas. I told her I wanted to be a patrol guard at school, but I would have to be at school early. The only time I could practice piano was before school, so my mom and I had a big fracas over that. I stayed with piano and played at local, state, and regional performing contests. Once I played a Beethoven sonata and it was perfect. When I stood up and turned around, the music teachers gave me a standing ovation. From that, I can relate to the experiences of my character, Molly.

Were artistic performances rare during the Depression?
As Molly’s dad said in the book, “Few people had money for concerts,” and many groups had to halt their performances for a period of time.

How much research went into your settings?
Obviously, when we visited Royal Oak, Michigan, in person, and met Lois Lance, the local historian, I had much more detailed information. I found the house where my grandparents lived and located the local music conservatory. I saw the light rail system which people rode in and out of the city of Detroit. We spent a couple of days copying information about that period of time (prices, clothing, ads in papers, etc.) from microfiche files in the Detroit Library. I wanted the setting to feel authentic enough that people who had no familiarity with the era could learn about that.

Do you have a writing background?
I wrote children’s ministry curriculum for LifeWay Christian Publishing for twelve years. For many years, I have been a contributing writer for various secular educational publishers. Most of my writing has been for English and reading instructional programs along with some social studies, from grades K-12.

In addition to curriculum writing, I have written a number of stand-alone books which were on assigned topics or themes. They were written for middle-school kids who are struggling readers, so the books are not very long. Content is important in keeping the attention of young readers. Shaq the Giant is a short biography of Shaquille O’Neal. The Stinger is a story about deadly jellyfish is found off the coast of Australia. I contacted a professor at the University in Australia who would go out on the boat and find these things. He developed antidotes for the people who were stung by them.

Two books which are on my Amazon author page are A Woman of Action: Jane Addams (Leveled Readers) and The Unsigned Oath, both written in 2008.

How did you get involved with writing curriculum?
It's sort of an underground network. I started working for someone I knew who was doing that. Soon I was recruited to do my own contract work.

I was a first and second-grade teacher. Then I wanted something that wasn't going to consume my life because I am a parent of four adopted children. I got my master’s in reading and became a reading specialist. It was a more flexible job and I could be at home when my kids were home.

What elements make a book “Young Adult?”
Well, usually, it is determined by the age of the main character. However, I have found many senior adults loving His Gift. I believe because it contains a spiritual/inspirational theme, everyone can be blessed by reading it. It’s a universal conflict which most everyone faces in one way or another.

In addition, I believe this story is a perfect fit for Christian high schoolers, whether in a Christian School or in a homeschool environment. The story can be instrumental in teaching students about the historical period while teaching about literature. In addition, it has an encouraging, Christ-honoring theme.

I love the elements of friendship in the book, and the camaraderie of the high school students. Do you think Christian fiction is important for today’s young adults?
Definitely. We all need illustrations of how to live on earth as believers. I began writing this at a period in my teaching career when I was reading and responding to students reading a multitude of young adult literature. Most of it was not uplifting, encouraging, nor did it contain Christian values.

Is the mother/daughter relationship in the story based on your own experience with a mother or daughter?
Some of the relationship was based on what I knew of my mom’s very close relationship with her mother as told to me. Since my maternal grandmother passed away when I was only four, I only had those stories to rely on. However, my mother and I had a good relationship, and I have experienced a very warm and loving relationship with my daughter.

What do you hope readers take away from your story? Have you heard back from any?
Oh, how I pray they will find hope and peace by yielding their troubles to Christ. Such a freedom comes to those who release their treasured dreams to Him and then wait for Him to bless them in His way and His timing. I have heard from some readers and it’s been very rewarding. My friend posted on my Facebook page that the book kept her up all night. That's better than any amount of money.

At a writing conference, a very well-known person looked at my synopsis and commented that nobody wants to read about the Great Depression. I said it’s not about the Great Depression, it’s about God’s Redemption. It was a dark period, but I hope the reader takes away that we have hope in Him, no matter what. Even if our dreams don't come true.

What is your favorite part of the story?
By far, it’s the end, Chapter 26. Though I felt the crisis/conflict was well understood from my mother’s true story of loss, I couldn’t figure out how to resolve the problem. When I “released” the story to become a true inspirational novel, not a “wholesome, clean read” useful in public schools, the Lord brought me the ideas to complete the story. I still choke up when Molly finally lays her gift before the Lord after all that struggle to have it her way.

What are you working on next?
At the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference a few summers ago, I had a deep time of prayer about His Gift, and my future writing. I felt the Lord was pointing me to write fiction about what I was learning in the counseling room. It seemed very clear at the time. I had been trained to serve as a patient advocate/counselor for our local Crisis Pregnancy Centers. I have already drafted the next book and given a full book proposal to my agent. I’m very excited and hope to get writing on it again soon. Completing and launching His Gift has been consuming most of my time in the past few months.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
Being able to attend the Greater Philly Conference three summers ago was extremely profitable to me as a Christian writer. I found my agent, David Fessenden there, and met other people who have influenced my life in a positive way.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
I believe it impacts my writing greatly. It provides purpose and gives me impetus to continue. I want my stories to encourage, strengthen, and impact others to become strong in faith. If I do not have my own vine branch closely connected with the root of the plant, I will not have anything to give to others.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Time and energy. I used to love to write late at night when distractions were minimal. However, at my “youthful age” of 76. I find my ambitions often compete with my energy to accomplish what I want to do. I'm praying God will give me favor and strength and energy and life and health to write more stories.

What is the funniest thing that has happened to you as an author?
My trip to the Greater Philly Conference in 2017 was hilarious on many levels, though indirectly connected to me as an author. I was at a prayer meeting when a young man, new to our church and area, mentioned how his wife (in her 40s) believed God was calling her to write Christian books for young children. She needed prayer for attending a conference because she is vision-impaired, and her husband needed to stay at home to take care of their little girl. So, a short version of the story is how we teamed up, not knowing much about each other, and made the long drive from VA to the conference.

I tend to be “directionally challenged” and Marje is vision impaired. We had two GPS systems talking to us, and a bold-print written set of directions which I tried to match up with at least one of the GPSs, which often were not in sync. Marje was my motivational cheerleader as we navigated unfamiliar roads, construction areas, and finally arrived in “two pieces.” We could be heard trying to also navigate through crowded conference rooms, “Coming through—vision-impaired,” while Marje waved her long wand which she uses to help find her way alone. I’m sure everyone knew who we were by the time it was over. We decided we should write a book about all the funny mistakes and sayings on the GPS devices. This summer of 2020, we are both published, and she is one of my closest friends. God is good.

Any event concerning your writing life for which you are particularly proud?
My first radio show went very well, and I pulled off a successful virtual book launch this past week with the help of four other dedicated people.

Any regrets?

If you could have coffee with an author whose work you admire, who would that be?
Madeleine L’Engle. I have enjoyed her writing, but especially her more personal life stories about her marriage and her great grandmother: A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great Grandmother. She and I would likely have much in common. I learned she also loved to play the piano and swim, which in my “best life,” I would do daily if I could.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
My family and church are of primary importance in my life, and studying God’s word is my inspiration.

I love to swim laps for exercise and walking on the beach at sunrise (or sunset depending on where I am). Playing the piano is a beautiful escape from work and chores.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
YES, You Can! By Beth Gormong and Jeanette Levellie
The Mending by Linda Brooks Davis
Dark Motives by Zanne Marie Dyer.

Any sage advice for new or aspiring ACFW authors?
Don't give up on your dream. Believe that it will come to pass and pray over it. Don't get too many points of view and advice. Write your story.

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