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Interview with Lisa Wingate

Lisa Wingate is an award winning author and a motivational speaker. She was inspired to become a writer by a first-grade teacher who said she expected to see Lisa’s name in a magazine one day.

Lisa, the lessons the character learns in your new release, The Prayer Box, were partially inspired by a conversation with an eighth-grade girl. Tell us about that experience and how it inspired your new book.

You wouldn’t think you could learn from the people in your head, but God teaches me something with every book. The conversation that, for me, clarified one of the underlying lessons of The Prayer Box happened during a youth discipleship weekend at our church. We're the big church in a small town so we get kids from all different backgrounds. Our youth department is always an interesting mix, and sometimes the kids don't mix as well as we’d like.

At one of the evening sessions, I walked into the back foyer and found a middle-school girl sulking alone on one of the benches. I sat down beside her and asked her why she wasn't in there enjoying the worship music.

Her answer had attitude, "Oh, it's all just fake. Here we are, the whole weekend is about how to be real, and how not to be ‘posers’, and everybody's all friendly, and then when we get back to school, all those girls won't even talk to me. That's why I don't come here anymore. It's all just fake."

I looked down at the bench, and the contents of her purse had spilled between us. Sometimes God gives you just the right epiphany at just the right time. I reached for her cell phone, and asked, "If I picked up your cell phone right now and walked off with it, what would you do? "

Of course, she looked at me like my head had just broken loose and rolled across the room. "I’d grab you and make you give it back. My life is in that phone!"

So I set down her phone and picked up a tube of lip gloss. I asked her how much the lip gloss cost, and she informed me that it was a cheap one from the dollar store. It cost $1.50. I asked her what she’d do if one of those girls she was so worried about walked by and took her lip gloss? She quickly informed me that she would “Jump ‘em for that.”

I held up the container. "Why would you go to the extreme of getting in a fight over this $1.50 lip gloss?"

"Because it's mine. It's not theirs. "

I looked at her, this little girl, who I hope gets this message because it will make her life so much better in every way, and it is the message that is delivered to Tandi through the letters she discovers in Iola Anne Poole’s prayer boxes.

"You’re right. This lip gloss does not belong to them. It belongs to you. And so does your faith in yourself, and so does your faith in God. And you have to defend that with at least as much determination as you would use to defend this dollar-fifty lip gloss. Or better yet, your cell phone. You cannot go through your life letting other people walk off with pieces of you that belong to you and God. "

That’s the thing that Tandi has to learn in the story, so that she can live well. Yes, there is a great lesson in prayer boxing itself. In the idea of being very intentional about your prayers, in really thinking about what you're asking for, and writing down your prayers, and giving them over to God, but underlying it all is this lesson about not letting other people determine who you are in your faith and in your life. About not letting other people walk off with things that don't belong to them.

The setting of this book changed from Texas to the Outer Banks. What caused you to change it and did you visit the location for research purposes? Tell us a bit about your research.

I had originally set the book on the Texas coast. I knew the story would be set in a small seaside community that was struggling to recover from a hurricane, and that the main character would be an outsider who comes there seeking refuge.

What I didn’t know was that a longtime reader-friend of mine, Ed Stevens (whose personal history inspired my earlier novel, Dandelion Summer) would visit his daughter’s beach house on the Outer Banks (OBX) for Thanksgiving that year, and come back and tell me I needed to set a book in the Outer Banks to draw attention to the destruction there and the plight of residents – Hurricane Irene had passed by in September and was mostly thought of as a “non-event” on the news because it didn’t hit New York etc. as was predicted. But the damage on the Outer Banks was very bad.

At first, I sort of put Ed off about the Outer Banks book idea and I filed it neatly in my “someday” ideas folder. I was already working on a hurricane story set in Texas, of course. In Texas, we know a lot about post-hurricane damage.

So, I had my mind all made up about this story.

But then Ed stirred the pot a bit. He asked his daughter – if Lisa decided to set a book on the OBX, could she stay in the beach house to do research? – then he emailed me and told me Shannon and Wick had offered to let us stay in the house whenever I did decide to set a book on the OBX. The rest is history. Seriously, how could you say no to an offer like that? Ed also sent me links to stories about OBX history and photos of the islands.

Right about then, I had a brilliant idea. Why couldn’t I change the setting of The Prayer Box to the Outer Banks and go stay in the beach house to do research? I mean, wouldn’t it occur to anyone who was offered an Outer Banks beach house as a research retreat?

What do you hope the reader will take away from The Prayer Box?

The idea of actually prayer boxing, for one thing! Prayer boxes have a long tradition in Jewish history and among early Christians, but other than occasional use or as a novelty gift, they aren’t used that much in modern Christianity. Honestly, that’s a loss. A prayer box is like a prayer journal, but it’s much more flexible and much lower pressure. Any scrap of paper you run across any time of the day will do, and you can drop it in your prayer box whenever you have the chance. Closing the lid is symbolic of giving it over to God and letting it go.

I think prayer boxing and the idea of taking the time to record our prayers, hopes, and gratitudes in writing (as Iola did in the book) is so very valuable. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when a child graduates, to be able to give that child the box of hopes and prayers written by parents and grandparents during the first year of life? Or for a couple on their 25th anniversary to re-open the box from their first year of marriage? For years, I’ve given journals or prayer boxes to couples as wedding gifts and encouraged them to write down their hopes and gratitudes during their first year of life, then keep them. It’s a great exercise while they’re doing it and a precious keepsake for later. It’s also their story, preserved.

I hope that readers, among other things, will see prayer boxes in a new way after reading the book. The eighty-one boxes discovered in Iola’s house are the story of her unsung life. There is, in the end, nothing more true to who we are than what we pray for. (Here’s a link to a blog post about making, using, and sharing prayer boxes.)

You juggle many roles. What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
I think for me the biggest challenge is time management. I have a feeling that’s true for most writers these days. It’s hard to balance personal responsibilities, business needs, promotional needs, and writing. There are days when the email stack-up is overwhelming… and if I’m being totally honest *sigh* I love social media way too much. It’s a brave new world and I’m still figuring it out. I can become wa-a-ay too distracted by it. I’m a people person. I’d much rather chat on Facebook or surf Pinterest than get down to the hard work of writing.

How do I balance it? Some days better than others. Mostly, I set a word-count quota for myself and I force myself to stick to it. The more I diddle around before getting to the writing, the heavier the guilt becomes, and I’ll eventually surrender to it. Once I’m into the story, it’s not a problem. The struggle is just in the getting there.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling? Does your faith come into play even when writing for the secular audience? How so?
I’ve always written stories about spiritual journey, about the journey to relationship with God. When I started writing mainstream fiction, the dividing line between ABA and CBA fiction was more defined than it is now. In 2001, when my first book, Tending Roses, was released by Penguin Putnam, faith-based stories in ABA mainstream fiction were a rarity, which made it an exciting, and sometimes challenging, place to be. Over the years, the Christian and secular markets have developed and converged, and when I was given the opportunity write for a CBA House as well as Penguin, I jumped at the chance. My greatest desire as a writer is to create books that have the potential to bring Christian and secular readers together and generate discussion.

My goal in writing has always been to build understanding by allowing one person to walk in another’s shoes. When we know how it feels to live within the mind, and heart, and body of someone else, we realize that everyone hurts, everyone struggles, everyone breaks down and gets up, then tries to put the pieces back together. We’re all products of our own experiences. When we feel the suffering and the triumphs of others, we’re better able to look at each other with the sense of grace God intends.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
This may sound silly, but a special first grade teacher, Mrs. Krackhardt, put the idea of being a real writer into my head. She found me writing a story one day at indoor recess, and she took the time to stop and read it. When she was finished, she tapped the pages on the desk to straighten them, looked at me over the top and said, “You are a wonderful writer!” From that moment on, in my mind, I was a writer.

The strange thing is that I was only in her class for a few months before we moved again, but during that time, she left an indelible mark on my life. It’s funny how we have defining moments in our lives, and that time in Mrs. Krackhardt’s class was one of mine. For years, I couldn’t have told you what she looked like, or whether she was a young teacher or an old teacher, but I could have told you that she said I was a wonderful writer. When I left her class, she wrote on my report card, “Keep that pencil working with that wonderful imagination, Lisa!” and “I expect to open a magazine and see you listed among the contributors.” I still have that report card, and I never forgot those words, or the way her confidence in me gave me confidence. Publishing is a difficult business, but I always believed I could do it, because my first grade teacher told me so.

What advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?
Write because you love it. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. If you really want to work toward publication, set a manageable daily page quota, or daily writing hours, and hold yourself to it. One of the hardest things about writing is holding yourself accountable for finishing a project.

Finish your novel. It’s almost impossible to sell a partial if you’re unpublished. Polish it and send it out, because as much as we’d like them to, editors won’t come looking in your desk drawer. While you’re waiting for news, write another book. If the first one sells, you’ll be set for a two-book deal. If the first one doesn’t sell, you will have eggs in another basket. Be tenacious, be a thick-skinned as possible, keep writing while you wait for news.

Rejection will happen. It isn’t anything personal; it’s just part of the business, and it’s to be expected. Your project isn’t bad just because it gets rejected. It may not be that editor’s (or agent’s) cup of tea, the house might not be buying right then, they may have another author under contract whose work is similar to yours, and so on. There are so many reasons a book can be rejected, and the real trick is to look at the rejections as a tool and then move on. Don’t make sweeping changes based on one opinion, unless there’s a imminent sale involved. Conversely, if you hear the same criticism from several editors (or agents), consider pulling out the red pen and getting to work.

Don’t be afraid to edit, but don’t spend all your time perfecting and re-perfecting a few chapters. A whole manuscript that needs work is better than three perfect chapters, any day.

What other parting words do you have to share?
Wherever you go in life, God has scattered nuggets of story along the trail. Sometimes you see them coming; sometimes you stumble over them. One of the tricks in writing is pausing long enough to pick them up and examine them. A writer's mind can take it from there, and a nugget can become an entire goldmine. That's where the joy is, that's when the magic happens, and there is no magic like the magic of story!

Thanks for sharing with us, Lisa Wingate!

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