Your novels fly in the face of the mistaken notion that saint stories are dry, boring, or irrelevant to modern life. They are lively, gritty, and despite the time periods, relatable. How does your storytelling compare to the style of other stories of the saints?
As a mother of eleven, I’ve read an awful lot of books about saints over the years, believe me. I’ve invested more money than I care to admit, always hoping, of course, to find stories that would not only inspire my children to love and imitate these incredible heroes and heroines of God, but, more importantly, make them realize that the saints were true flesh-and-blood human beings who started out with the same struggles, temptations and weaknesses that plague every one of us since Adam bit that stupid apple. But the more books I crammed into our bookshelves, the more apparent it became that the majority of saint novels (often reprints from the 40’s and 50’s) are agonizingly dull. It’s awful to say, but it’s true. I’m sure everyone knows the kind of books I’m talking about – where the author wheels out a cardboard cut-out saint and plops him on the page. There he sits, in perfect holiness, from his first breath. From that point on, things only get worse. Long-winded passages, flowery archaic prose, little action, dead-boring dialogue. Basically a bunch of lifeless characters tripping across the pristine white pages of your newly purchased twenty-dollar book, while you yawn your way through the story waiting for SOMETHING exciting to happen to these people. Sound familiar?
Don’t get me wrong. There are some excellent saint novels out there. But the majority (deep sigh) are drab, predictable, plot-less, and worst of all, hopelessly discouraging. They give the impression that if you weren’t born with bees miraculously coming out of your mouth, you don’t stand a chance when it comes to holiness.
Teenagers, even more than young children, are very discerning in what they read. A little child can be dazzled by any book (especially if Mommy reads it out loud) but for teens it’s different. In today’s world, what attraction does a saint story have, when competing against action-packed Harry Potter, heart-pounding vampire tales, or whatever else out there is being shoveled at our kids? It stands then to reason that if teens are going to read a saint story, it better have a lot of ACTION and EXCITEMENT. Something fast-paced and rollicking and fun . . . And above all, it needs a hero they can relate to. The saints weren’t boring, and neither should their stories be. So I try to make the pages of my novels brim with adventure and choose saints that even today’s teens can identify with. Adults sometime criticize me for using too modern a style. But I hear over and over again from my teen readers that it’s precisely that which makes them keep coming back for my next book.
Your series is entitled “God’s Forgotten Friends: Lives of Little-Known Saints.” Why God’s forgotten friends? Why not the saints who are familiar?
“In many chapels, reddened by the setting sun, the saints rest silently, waiting for someone to love them.”
Years ago I came across these words, written by an unknown priest, and they struck me with such urgency that I knew those were the saints I was going to write about. Every Catholic has heard of St. Francis, St. Therese, St. John Bosco. I love all of them. Everyone does, and books about them abound. But what about the obscure saints that no one has prayed to in centuries? Saint Magnus, Saint Ansgar, Saint Dymphna, Saint Cloud or John the Dwarf or Moses the Black? Even my absolute favorite saint, Camillus de Lellis, has his own Proper in the Missal, yet almost no one knows a thing about his wayward youth. (As you can see, my list of planned novels is endless!) I imagine all these saints in Heaven, looking down with yearning in their eyes, hoping someone, someday, will discover them and fall in love with them. So that’s what, with their help and the grace of God, I want my novels to do!
How difficult is it to research these “forgotten friends”? And how do you fictionalize events in their lives while remaining true to their known histories?
I spend a lot of time on research. Sometimes even years before I actually sit down and type those ominous words, “Chapter One.” But researching is part of the adventure of discovering my saints. Having said that, I have a confession to make. . . With thousands of forgotten saints to choose from, I usually go for the ones whose lives are veiled in the most obscurity, or where historians differ so much in their accounts that I can allow myself a fair degree of creative license without feeling guilty. Did St. Camillus fight at the Battle of Lepanto? Did Baldwin have 700 or 300 knights at his miraculous victory of Ascalon? How old was St. Magnus when he died? It all depends on which historian you read, so I simply take my pick and use the version that will best fit my story. My intent is never to present a definitive biography. My books are novels and I think my readers know that.
How has writing about these saints affected your own spiritual life?
On one hand, I realize in writing about my heroes that I am nowhere even close to being holy, like they were. But because I try to draw out their human sides, I come to know them as fellow human beings who struggled and fell and were sometimes afraid and had the same emotions we all do. That gives me hope that sanctity is within reach and God’s grace will never fail anyone who surrenders himself entirely to His love. Ultimately that’s the message I want to give my readers. By the end of my own books, I also discover I’ve fallen in love with my saints and they are my truest and most powerful friends for life, even if I didn’t start writing the book with a ton of devotion to them. Again, it’s these true friendships with the saints that I hope my readers will take away with them when they close that final page of one of my novels and return it to the shelf.
You have experience in writing plays. How did you come to writing novels? How has script-writing been helpful to you in that regard?
Writing novels has been part of my life ever since I learned how to hold a pencil. I wrote my first “book” long before I could even spell by dictating it to my big sister, and things just kept moving from there. My entire childhood I dreamed of becoming a novelist. My husband and I got involved in writing plays in the early 90’s for a small Catholic company, and although it was far removed from my dream of writing books, it turned out to be the thing that launched my writing career. In fact, A Soldier Surrenders started out as a movie screenplay, co-written with my husband Jeff. Later I adapted the script into my first novel. With fear and trembling –and absolutely no clue how to go about it — I submitted the manuscript simultaneously to every Catholic publisher I knew. (Hint: NEVER DO THAT!) To my shock, no less than four publishers accepted it, forcing me to turn three of them down (I still cringe when I think about that!). But God made my dream come true. Back to Carolyn’s question . . . The single most valuable lesson screenwriting taught me was definitely how to write dialogue.
You’ve released a series of books for young children as well. My youngest children enjoyed the “Animals of God” stories (told from an animal’s point of view) as well as the illustrations. What was it like to work with an illustrator to bring your characters to life?
I was truly blessed to team up with Martina Parnelli, a wonderful artist who shares my triple love of children, animals and obscure saints! At present we’re working on our fourth picture book together, The Man God Kept Surprising: Saint William of Bourges. I find it so exciting to send her one of my stories and see what she will do with my characters. We start each book by deciding on a list of scenes I want her to illustrate, based on my page count, typesetting options, and so forth. But once I submit the scenes to her, I leave it entirely to her to do what she wants with them. Opening her emails and finding her delightful results are like Christmas! My first love will always remain writing novels for teens, but working on children’s books with Martina has been extremely fun and rewarding.
What projects are you working on now?
My current work-in-progress is The Hunted Princess, a young adult novel about Saint Dymphna. Martina Parnelli and I are also working on our “God’s Forgotten Friends for Children” series, which kicked off with Small for the Glory of God: Saint John the Dwarf and will soon have Saint William added to it.
So many little-known saints to write about and never enough time . . . !
A Soldier Surrenders, also available en Español: La rendicíon de un soldado
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