Friday, October 04, 2013

A Novel by a Spiritual Non-Fiction Writer Set in Central America? Twenty Years Ago? Really?? -- A Guest Post by Writer Paula Huston

Paula Huston is the author of the newly released novel A Land Without Sin.  She is also the author of Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life (both of which I highly recommend), and many other books.  I invited her to write about A Land Without Sin.


I’ll admit, it does sound a little far-fetched.  But there is a back-story here.  In fact, I was a fiction writer long before I began writing books like THE HOLY WAY.  I wanted to be a novelist from the time I was about seven years old, and actually began practicing way back then by writing a 36-page thriller about King the Dog, a super-canine hero who looked and acted an awful lot like Rin Tin Tin.  I took creative writing in high school, but got really serious about short story writing in my early twenties.  Since I had opted to get married and take on a full-time job in my late teens rather than go to college, I had no formal training, but I soon figured out that the library was full of great teachers.  I checked out all the BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORY anthologies I could get my hands on and studied the techniques of my favorite writers.

I sold my first story to a literary journal when I was about thirty, and by the time I actually went to college four or five years later (I’d been through a divorce by then, along with an eye-opening stint as a single mom, so I was more than convinced it was time to get a degree), I’d published quite a few of them.  A few years later, now remarried, a new step-mom, and armed with a Master’s in Literature degree, I got a job teaching at the local university and began trying to put together my first short story collection.  But one of the pieces, which was about the classical piano world at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, began to grow  uncontrollably, and pretty soon I realized I had an infant novel on my hands.  DAUGHTERS OF SONG  was published by Random House in 1995.

A year before it came out, however, my husband Mike and I made a backpacking trip to the jungles of Central America to see the Maya ruins.  We had just left southern Mexico for Guatemala when the Zapatista Uprising in Mexico began.  Like a lot of Americans, I knew very little about this part of the world, but this close brush with a revolution triggered an intense curiosity.  And that got coupled with my already-intense interest in the Mayas (my first major, before I switched to literature, had been anthropology).  I asked Random House if I could substitute a novel about all of this for the short story collection they’d planned to publish next.  They gave me the go-ahead and I spent the next three years researching and writing the book.  One of the biggest disappointments of my life came the day they informed me they’d decided not to publish it after all.  I stuck it away in a box and tried to forget about it.

Meanwhile, I met an editor-turned-agent at a writers’ conference who listened to my sad story and suggested I try writing spiritual nonfiction.  I resisted at first, but he was a great mentor, pointing me to wonderful spiritual writers I’d never read and eventually becoming my new agent.  It was his suggestion that I write a book about the simple life, the book that became THE HOLY WAY.   Much to my surprise, I found that I really liked writing nonfiction--it seemed refreshingly straightforward compared to fiction writing, which must always tell the truth but tell it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson puts it.  By the time I published my sixth book in this genre, I’d pretty well abandoned any notion of returning to fiction writing.

But one day a year or so ago I got an email from an old friend, a Christian editor who was starting a new literary imprint called, ironically enough, SLANT.  He asked if I had “any old novels lying around.”  I did!  And eighteen long years after I’d stuck it away and nearly forgotten about it, I dragged out that dusty old draft and reread it--and fell in love with it all over again.  Greg Wolfe, the Christian editor in question, liked it too.  He asked me some great editorial questions that helped me launch into a major revision, and a year or so after that initial email, A LAND WITHOUT SIN finally saw print.

How does it feel to hold this long-delayed book in my hands?  Surprisingly enough, I’m very grateful Random House did not publish it back then.  I learned so much during those many years of writing spiritual nonfiction.  First, I did not have any formal training in theology or divinity, so I had to educate myself in those areas--which made it possible, for example, for me to write much more believably about the struggles of a young priest to come to terms with the question of evil.  Second, when I wrote that first draft back in the early 90‘s, I was a very recent returnee to Christianity, still wet behind the ears, and this naive inexperience showed up as a certain kind of preachiness in that earlier version.  And finally, like a lot of people in their sixties, I’ve said goodbye to some of my youthful idealism by now--and I think this makes me a stronger, more realistic, and more truthful writer than I used to be.  Certainly a better writer for a book like this one, packed as it is with The Big Questions and their Not-So-Easy Answers.   


Edith Maxwell said...

This sounds wonderful. I will check it out!

I have lived in West Africa and keep meaning to incorporate those experiences into my fiction, but haven't made time yet. Sometime soon. ;^)

(I write a contemporary Quaker mystery series under the pen name Tace Baker and a Local Foods mystery series under my own name.)

Anonymous said...

I enjoy Edith Maxwell's novels. I hope our book group can read "Land Without Sin."