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Interview with Kristen Joy Wilks

Author Kristen Joy Wilks lives and works with her husband and three sons at a remote Bible camp in eastern Washington State. The twenty-acre camp is situated at the foot of the Cascade Mountains adjacent to eighty acres of land that belonged to her grandfather. The area is quite remote. The forests of Ponderosa pines and fir trees serve as prime habitat for black bears, cougars, elk, and even the occasional wolf or moose.

Kristen’s day-to-day experiences, along with a family trip to Yellowstone National Park, provided the perfect framework for her latest romantic tale,
Yellowstone Yondering, which was released January 17.

In the book, a free-spirited wildlife photographer named Kayla gets into trouble with a resident park ranger, thanks to the antics of her Scottish terrier. I recently talked with Kristen to learn of her own adventures and how she incorporated them into
Yellowstone Yondering.

What is a “yondering?” Did you come up with your story first, or the title?
I came up with the story first. The title was a back-and-forth with my publisher. I wanted to call the book “Fur baby Foibles,” but we decided that didn’t sound romantic enough.

The Urban Dictionary defines yondering like this: “Actualizing the yearning to adventure, to roam, to wander in an unspecific direction toward an indeterminate objective, usually over hill(s) and out of sight.” You start with the word, “Yonder” which roughly means, “over that-a-way” and then you pursue it. Louis L'Amour actually had a book of short stories called Yondering.

To go “a yondering” would be to seek something over yonder, not necessarily something specific, more like an experience or adventure. My heroine enjoys adventure and doesn’t feel the need to plan out exactly how that adventure will go.

Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?
Our family went to Yellowstone when our sons were 12, 10, and 8. It was such an adventure and we were amazed by all of the very stern warning signs accompanied by terrifying pictures. This makes sense as many park visitors do not read English and a drawing of a bison flinging a child into the air can help tourists not to walk up and try to pet them. But all of these signs got me wondering about the kind of excitement I could have for a character who didn’t follow the rules. What if something (her lost dog) forced her to do everything that she shouldn’t do while visiting Yellowstone?

Growing up in the woods probably helped me to write Kayla’s perils. I also did research into the specific plant life in the park and of course enjoyed watching Youtube videos of bears breaking into cars.

One of your main characters is a lovable Scottish terrier named Ainsley. Do you have a dog of your own?
Ainsley was based on my childhood dog, Inky. He was a Scottish terrier mix and definitely had that bold Scottie attitude. He would challenge any male dog to a battle to the death, no matter what size his opponent was. It made for exciting walks.

Our current fur baby is a 110-pound Newfoundland named Princess Leia Freyja. She isn’t brave at all, ha! But she is an excellent camp dog, family dog, and loves to visit local schools and nursing homes to do therapy dog work. We visit the elderly at Memory Care where the residents are not allowed to have their pets. We also do reading therapy at four different schools in our district. We’re usually in special ed classrooms where the kids are struggling with reading. Princess Leia Freyja lies down and the kids pet her and read to her. She does some comfort care, too. Last year, a student committed suicide. We went to the school and visited the kids in the halls and in the library. Kids are able to talk about their emotions more when they're with a dog.

Your main characters—Kayla, professional photographer, and Alexander, a National Park Service ranger—have interesting jobs. How much research did you do in creating their occupations?
I am the photographer here at Camas Meadows Bible Camp and that definitely helped me to write Kayla’s character. For Alexander, I researched the parks, looked up job details online, and was super-blessed to get advice from Karen Barnett (Author of the Vintage National Park series) who was a park ranger back in the day. She helped so much as I was giving Alexander too many jobs and needed to have him specialize. I ended up making him an interpretive ranger because if he’d been an enforcement ranger, he would have cited Kayla and kicked her out of the park really early in the story. I would have had a very short tale.

You gave your tough park ranger, Alexander, has a softer side. He makes his grandmother’s cookies and reads Pride and Prejudice. Did you model his character on someone you know?
Oh, wow! I didn’t even think about this. I chose to make him a perfectionist (or a number one if you are an Enneagram fan) and that was certainly fun. But I also wanted those sweet personality quirks that make us fall in love. Thinking about it, my husband loves Pride and Prejudice and my sons are excellent cookie bakers. So, I have some amazing men in my life to give me ideas.

Alexander pulls out his board games to relax. Is this something your family does?
Yes. My husband is a boardgamer and actually started a Christian Boardgame retreat at the camp where we live. He has a large boardgame collection (300+) and all three of our sons are pretty amazing at strategy boardgames. I play with them occasionally and we have spent many wonderful evenings together around the table playing games.

Do you enjoy camping and sleeping in the woods like your character Kayla?
I love the forest and while I’m not thrilled with being dirty and eaten by bugs, I think that it is worth it to get to some of the amazing remote places that are hidden away.

Kayla also rides a motorcycle. Do you?
Yes, I rode dirt bikes with my brother and stepbrothers as a girl and rode with my husband on his street bike back when we were dating.

Do you include recipes in all your books?
Yes, with the exception of my first book, I always include a recipe. It’s so fun to taste test them and make my own variations. I have several books set in other countries and especially like those more unique flavors.

For this book, I took a plain shortbread recipe and tried different additions. At first, I added apple bits but it made the cookie soft, not like a shortbread cookie. I switched from apples to dried cranberries.

Do you always include a devotional at the end of your books?
The devotional was my publisher’s idea in response to some of the struggles that my characters face on their journey.

What do you hope readers gain reading from Yellowstone Yondering?
The Christian theme is God's Restoration. I wrote about the way God finds us where we are at and then goes from there, giving us grace, making us a new creation. God works both in the hero's life as he is strong and cautious and careful to follow the rules and the heroine's life as she has decided to leave a destructive path, finds the strength to choose God and finds new life in Christ. I hope that my readers with laugh out loud and have a simple, delightful time with my book. But I also hope that they will see that God can give them the strength to choose Him during difficult temptations and the He can restore them after they make mistakes.

Why do you think so many Christian authors have a “happily ever after” in their romance books?
Well, I have been told that the story is not in the romance genre if it doesn’t have a happily ever after. If it has a bittersweet or sad ending, it is probably a “love story.” If it’s about a woman struggling through hard times and overcoming without necessarily falling in love, it might be “women’s fiction.”

I think we read romance to see a character struggle for their “happily ever after” and to assure ourselves that no matter how hard life is right now, there will be a happily ever after, a victory in Heaven with our Lord.

Will there be a sequel? What are you working on next?
I hadn’t thought about going on with Kayla and Alexander’s story after sharing how they fell in love. That would be interesting. I’m working on several different manuscripts right now, including a middle grade adventure set at Bible camp and a RomCom where the heroine must find fifteen beloved pet chickens after their trailer coop crashes on the highway, scattering them all over the forest!

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
Realizing that God answers my prayers for help when I hit a writing snag. It is amazing to see Him take an interest in the tiny details of our lives.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
Ha! I have tried to write books for the general market, but God stuff just keeps popping up in my stories. He is such a huge part of who I am and whenever I write the internal character arc … it keeps being a spiritual character arc even if I never intended it to be.

What is your writing routine? Any quirky habits or must-have snacks?
I curl up most mornings scrunched into an oversized chair with my computer on my lap (I use a lap desk), a cup of coffee with cream, and a handful of almonds. I usually write in a perfectly quiet house at 4:00 a.m. but can write in chaos if pressed.

What is the funniest thing that has happened to you as an author?
I once wrote a fake query letter to an agent I really liked and sent it on April Fool’s Day. It was horrendous. It was about 25,000-word picture book called The Boat, the Moat, and the Goat. It involved a giant Wels Catfish eating the main character when he fell into a castle moat. The agent sent me a fake acceptance letter asking my three sons and fuzzy dog to star in the blockbuster movie.

Any event concerning your writing life for which you are particularly proud?
Someone once gave one of my books a truly fabulous score in a contest and it won. She then told me that my crazy and silly story ministered to her on a day that was difficult. To know that my writing touched someone on a hard day makes the long hours and many, many rejections so worth it. Never underestimate the power of laughter.

Any sage advice for new or aspiring ACFW authors?
Look at the long picture. I thought I would be published in six months. It took me 12 or 13 years, but now my fifth book is out. Go to a conference every year (there are smaller local conferences that are more affordable) and the occasional large conference as money allows. Find a critique group or a critique partner. It might take several tries to find just the right group for you and your genre. And write every day that you can—just forming words on the page every day, will make you better over time.


Teresa Haugh lives with her husband in sunny Prescott, Arizona. When she is not writing, she enjoys music, hiking, reading, and visiting the gym (with audiobooks, of course). She loves meeting and talking with other authors about their writing journeys.

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