Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Author Spotlight & Interview: Laurel Garver, YA Christian Fiction Novelist

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to read ALMOST THERE by Laurel Garver and participate in the blog tour. {You can find my review here!} This was a lovely YA Christian fiction novel that approached topics and questions relevant to the teen life today, yet it was handled with grace and filtered through the perspective of faith. As I mentioned in the book review, I highly recommend this book to all YA and inspirational fiction lovers.   

I've asked Laurel to stop by today to discuss ALMOST THERE and share her valuable advice for teen writers. 

Almost There is a YA novel that is relevant to the teen culture today, yet it's Christian and doesn't come across as preachy. How did you manage to accomplish this without blurring the lines?

If I’m reading your question correctly, you’re wondering how I can write about faith in a way that isn’t off-putting to contemporary teens, but feels like it’s part of normal life. I suppose it’s first understanding that a life of faith isn’t lived across a line in the sand, that this spot over here is where I have a spiritual life, and on the other side is where the rest of the world goes about its business. Real faith doesn’t need a sanitized bubble in order to exist. Real faith is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It walks with courage into dark places through the power of the Holy Spirit, and tries to act as Jesus did. He reached out to those who were at the margins, who were hurting. I write what I hope is an invitation to teens of faith to see their purpose in this way.

Preachiness in literature comes when characters aren’t given the space to “come to their senses” on their own. Jesus’ example of how to show a transformation well is the prodigal son story. Did someone come and preach at the younger brother, and tell him he had been a selfish jerk and he should just go home and apologize to his family? No, the story events led him to that conclusion. So it is with my characters. They make their mistakes and gradually learn from them. When epiphanies come, they act on them, and test their new understanding. They move from blindness to insight to realized truth.

One thing I appreciated about your book was that the family dynamics wasn’t portrayed as perfect, yet the story was hopeful rather than melodramatic. Was this intentional? Why did you feel it necessary to include the hopeful message?

Having a deeply flawed family with lots of baggage is a reality for nearly everyone I know, and yet there is tremendous stigma attached to having a less than picture-perfect family life. People become hopeless because the voice of shame says it isn’t okay to let these secrets be known, and so they become stuck. In my experience, God isn’t content to leave us in these places. He hammers at our lies and disguises so that they crumble, letting in the revealing light that will enable healing. Shame loses its power in the face of a God who pursues and loves us no matter how screwed up or rebellious we are. He’s in the business of bringing the dead back to life. To not have hope is to not yet know this God.

What initially inspired you to write YA Christian fiction?

Young adult books were what got me hooked on reading, especially the realistic fiction of Madeleine L’Engle, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Paula Danziger, and Ellen Conford. L’Engle in particular had characters clearly coming from a churched background, but the stories didn’t feel like they were plodding morality tales. Her brainy misfits genuinely struggled to do the right thing when it’s hard, clearly making choices informed by their faith. Those stories were very life-giving to me.  So I wanted to create books like those I enjoyed reading at that critical time in my life, especially ones about kids of faith dealing with deeply dysfunctional families.  

How were you able to get inside of a teen girl’s head and capture her voice accurately and authentically? 

I’m flattered that you find Dani so realistic that you imagine her to be an actual person with a head to get inside. Creating her was really a matter of tapping into my own well of memory and allowing my emotions to be as big and turbulent as they were back then. The strange beauty of one’s teen years are how very intensely one feels and how one must learn to navigate and channel that ocean of emotion. Along with big emotions come big opinions—some quite wise, some quite shallow and ignorant—and big questions. Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I go about becoming that person?

Creating an authentic voice comes from connecting intimately with your character’s inner world. You begin to channel the attitudes and opinions she’d have in the face of certain experiences, and eventually think with her. I took extra time to develop some off-page details about my protagonist’s life –especially experiences and cultural influences—that would shape how she thinks, especially associations and allusions she makes in her speech and inner thoughts. What makes the details feel authentic is that they are interconnected—attitudes flowing from her experiences, not chosen at random.

What do you hope teens will take away from this story?

I hope that first of all, they will feel less alone in their struggles in tough family situations. The difficult people in our families often have a story behind how they’ve become that way. Learn the story, and you can begin to move toward that person with more understanding and love. Finally, I hope they will begin to grasp how God is with them and for them in places of deep pain and doubt.

Do you have any advice for teen writers?

Read widely and voraciously—not just what’s hot among your peers, but also poetry and literary fiction and classics and other genres that intrigue you. Copy passages that you love and study them. Experiment with lots of different styles and genres. Be intensely curious, and never pass up an opportunity to try new things and go new places. These are your apprentice years when you are filling your creative well with ideas and experiences, and developing all the foundational skills you need to become the writer you will flower into.

Finally, take advantage of mentoring relationships with creative adults you know. As a teen, I was always quick to start writing projects, only to abandon them, until a school program paired me with a favorite former teacher to create a big senior project. Mrs. Wright encouraged me to write an entire novel that year, and I did with her guidance. It was derivative and naïve, but I had so much fun and learned how to complete something large— a giant leap forward in my development.

Author Bio:

Laurel Garver is a writer, editor, professor’s wife, and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and hiking in Philly's Fairmount Park.

Connect with Laurel:

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Thanks for joining us, Laurel!

READERS: Do you have any questions for her? Leave them in the comments below!

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  1. Thanks so much for having me, Tessa. It was fun talking fiction and faith with you!

  2. It was my pleasure! Glad you could stop by. =)


  3. I love this post, Tessa! Thanks for doing the interview. =)

  4. What a helpful post :) I'm currently writing a Christian YA fantasy and like most of us I struggle to find the balance between preaching and organic writing!

    I didn't realize Judy Blume books were Christian, that's interesting!

    1. Glad to have helped. The parable technique is one of the most useful--having the character discover the path to repentance on their own will feel most realistic to readers.

      Sorry if I gave the false impression that all of the foundational writers of the YA genre from the 1960s and 70s were writing from a faith perspective. Some do, some don't. But when they do, they do so more organically than much of any I've read from Christian publishers, which tend to have very contrived, shallow conflict and a very heavy-handed "here's the lesson, boys and girls" approach to theme. On the whole, Blume's books aren't spiritual, though the character in Are You There God, It's Me Margaret does wrangle with faith issues, but it's a fairly mixed portrayal of religious curiosity in a kid raised with no faith tradition. Of the authors I mentioned, L'Engle writes most robustly of faith topics. The other writers made YA contemporary appeal to me; it was L'Engle who made characters of faith appealing.

    2. Yeah that's sort of what I'm trying to do with my book, but with a bit of a twist, like most tales end up being!

      And more than you would guess, which is lovely! I agree - it's hard to find good Christian fiction today. Yeah, I loved Wrinkle In Time as a kid :O But I have to say my biggest faith influence books were Lord of The Rings!

    3. I found L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet to be one of her strongest in bringing faith into a YA fantasy story. And I also recommend looking at the works of Charles Williams, who writes metaphysical thrillers--where the spiritual world breaks weirdly into our world. He was in the Inklings writing group with Tolkien and CS Lewis. Lewis's That Hideous Strength imitates Williams's style quite well. All Hallow's Eve is one of my favorites of Williams's novels.


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