Trials by fire are common enough in the publishing world, but Vinita Hampton Wright survived a particularly devastating one before the publication of her first novel in 1999. Grace at Bender Springs had made it through the entire editorial process at Christian publishing house Multnomah and was ready to go to the printer when the company's executives decided at the 11th hour to pull the plug. Although the novel contained no foul language or explicit sex scenes, its realistic characters and dark tone made it a risk for the Christian market.
"It was a great shock, since the editorial process had gone so well," Wright recalls, graciously serving chilled juice to PW in the dining room of her Chicago apartment. It was also Scrooge-like timing; the book was canceled just before Christmas. She packed the novel into a box, shoved it under a desk and went home for the holidays to the small town of Cherokee, Kans.--the town named in the book's dedication. It seemed to Wright as though everyone at the many family gatherings asked her when the book would be published. When she returned to Chicago, she was too despondent to approach other publishers, but a friend in the industry sent the book to agent Sara Fortenberry in Tennessee, who almost immediately had two Christian publishers, Baker Books and Broadman & Holman, bidding on it.
The story has a happy ending--Broadman & Holman paid Wright a low five-figure sum for a three-book contract--and Wright carried right on with her second novel, once again tackling taboo themes. Velma Still Cooks in Leeway (Broadman & Holman) tells the story of forgiveness in the face of domestic violence, frankly exploring difficult situations and featuring a flawed, though faithful, cast of characters.
Wright believes her novels fill a need in the world of Christian fiction. "In secular fiction, Christians are often caricatured, and in Christian fiction they're often idealized," she says. "What I want to do is present real Christians in my books. I think these people are worth knowing, and they're worth knowing just the way they are. They're learning things about themselves and other people, and they're learning about how faith works and who God is in ever-changing situations." Grace sold equally well in CBA and ABA stores, demonstrating unusual crossover potential. Although its sales numbers were not huge, they were encouraging for a first novel; the initial print run of 6,000 copies was exhausted within six weeks.
If Grace at Bender Springs pushed the envelope of Christian publishing, Velma Still Cooks in Leeway stands out as bona fide literary fiction with a Christian theme. It is driven not by the dynamic plot line of a Christian thriller like Left Behind but by the quiet dignity of ordinary people weathering extraordinary trials. Velma has already won critical raves in PW and elsewhere, and interviews with Wright are scheduled to appear in publications like Christianity Today. She is a bit taken aback by the attention being paid to her, though delighted with the reviews of both books.
Wright exudes a quiet hospitality throughout PW's seven-hour interview, picking up PW's representative at Midway airport during a sweltering Chicago heat wave and providing a superb tour of the city. She lives on a quiet, tree-lined street in Hyde Park, just a few blocks from the University of Chicago, and spends as many leisure hours as she can reading on the shores of Lake Michigan or hiking in Jackson Park. Her apartment is what she jokingly calls "a work in progress," with remodeling projects lasting years instead of months. Its comfortable interior is filled with Middle Eastern art and many photographs, some taken by her husband of 10 years, a professional photographer.
The 42-year-old writer and editor is a self-described introvert, but seems quite at ease relating her literary trials and triumphs to PW. "It's the personal material I have a hard time discussing," she confesses. Yet her personal journey has infused her writing at every turn. Wright's first two novels are set in tiny Kansas towns much like the one she lived in for her first 25 years. After a rapid childhood weight loss, she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism at age six. "My illness isolated me a lot," she remembers. "There were a couple of years there where I was just not able to be around other kids." Wright went to live with her grandmother, whose "job was to keep me quiet and get me to eat."
She describes her childhood as very rich in family love and faith, but her formative years were not free of emotional pain. "Most of the women in my family have been widowed rather young," she explains. "I'm figuring out that I'm going into my third novel where a widow features prominently in the story. I guess I happen to resonate a lot with that." And while her own marriage is happy, she says, "for reasons beyond my control, I can't have children. That has been difficult for me. I love children, watching them and being with them. I do think there's a great loss in not having that experience of mothering, and seeing a person develop from year to year. And as a writer, there's a whole realm of stories I'll never know. That makes me sad."
Although her life has had its share of trials, the domestic violence portrayed in Velma is not based on anything Wright has ever experienced personally, in childhood or in her marriage. She didn't set out to write about domestic violence as an issue-of-the-week, either. "I think that when you do that," she says, "it's not good fiction. It's more like propaganda. What I did set out to do in this story was to explore what forgiveness means in a small community, where you live with each other day in and day out. How does forgiveness work? You're bound to these people. They really are family. And so what I ended up with, a perfect situation to help me explore this, was a man in the church who was abusing his wife."
Wright believes that because of its honest depiction of spouse abuse, Velma could not have been published in the Christian market a decade ago. But in the last 10 years, she says, a number of nonfiction titles on domestic violence have "broken the silence" about physical abuse within Christian families. "I suspect that some readers outside the CBA will feel that I'm not harsh enough," she says, explaining that the character of Grady, the abusive husband, is multilayered and even likable. "These abusers are very complicated people. I couldn't just demonize him."
Despite its controversial subject matter, Velma may be less disturbing to some Christian readers than Grace was, Wright says, because she chose to tell the story "through the voice of someone like Velma, who is quite honest about everything, but has a viewpoint of steady faith, along with a gentle tone that is totally authentic for someone like her. I was able to sidestep a lot of the issues that got Grace into trouble." The character of Velma is unusual in her ordinariness, Wright believes. "So often, protagonists are such flamboyant characters. You have this handful of people out here making all this noise, and the multitudes who, to borrow the words of Thoreau, are leading lives of quiet grace."
Wright's own life of quiet grace involves a demanding "day job" at Loyola Press, where she serves as the editorial director of Loyola's trade books division. Although she has worked for companies in the past that publish fiction, she has chosen to edit only nonfiction, convinced that it would be impossible to edit fiction all day and then come home and try to write it in her own voice.
Finding the time and energy to write is a challenge for Wright, who takes two weeks of paid and two weeks of unpaid vacation each year to write full-time. The rest of the year, she squeezes solid writing time into evenings and weekends. Much of Grace at Bender Springs was written on the train as she commuted four hours each weekday from her home in Hyde Park to the suburbs, where she worked as an editor at Harold Shaw and then at Tyndale House. Now that she has moved to Loyola Press in the city, she carves out sacred writing time at home. After dinner, she announces to her husband that she's "going to go be creative," and he sends her off with a good luck kiss. She writes in the bedroom, in a recliner chair that is reserved especially for that purpose, with her laptop computer and a pot of strong tea on the side table. "That's my little ritual," she says. "I knew that I couldn't sit at a computer all day and then come home and sit at a computer."
Wright reads a good deal of nonfiction in her scarce leisure time; she tries to avoid reading fiction while she is in the early drafts of her own writing. When she does read fiction, it tends not to be "what we categorize as Christian fiction," as she politely explains. She shows PW Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey, her current read, and then explains that she lived in Jordan for several years in her mid-20s. She went there to teach English and music in a Baptist school, and "to see what God looked like once I got out of America." It was while she was in Jordan that she decided to abandon her budding career in music education and performance and become a writer.
At first, she wanted to write screenplays, being an avid film buff with a keen ear for dialogue. "But I decided that I wasn't willing to hang out in Hollywood for 10 or 20 years without a break." So to publishing--which Wright says she has never regretted. "It's a real pleasure to see an author bloom before you, and know that you were a part of that. Plus, I think that being an editor has made me a much better writer. It really complements my writing." Wright does not expect to ever quit her job to write full time ("I don't know if I'd ever want to put that kind of financial pressure on my creative life"), though she would like to reduce her workload and hours at some point.
Wright is outspoken about preserving her voice and letting creativity flow. She says that she has had to learn this as an adult, since her fundamentalist upbringing, for all its many blessings, did not encourage creativity. "You learned to judge yourself constantly," she explains. "The minute a thought came into your mind, you were supposed to make a moral judgment about it. Was it Christlike? That can be good for character development, as you learn to filter attitudes through your values. But when it comes to creativity, it has been my experience that you cannot judge and be creative at the same time."
Wright is currently hard at work on a third novel; she will reveal only that it addresses the changing character of rural life. This will fulfill her contract with Broadman & Holman. Then she will have to decide whether to remain in the Christian market or spread her wings. "I didn't set out to publish with a CBA publisher," she says. "That's just where my agent placed it. I would like to think that my writing could find a home in the ABA as well. Spirituality is just very interesting, and I love exploring that with characters. A character without that spiritual dynamic is just as flat as a character without a sexual dynamic."
It's probable she will cross over, she thinks. "There are stories that I won't be able to write within the CBA market. There are characters that I just don't think the religious market will bear right now. Also, there are stories that I'm interested in that are not just Christian stories. That's where I've started, because that's what I know best."
For now, Wright is thrilled to be gaining an audience, whether it be Christian or crossover. And she is ecstatic about the positive reviews, especially for Velma, because after her successful debut novel she secretly worried that she might turn out to be a one-hit wonder. Now, she says, "I'm finally beginning to think of myself as a novelist. Just in the last few months, when people ask me what I do, I'm beginning to say without giggling that I'm a novelist and not just an editor. And now that I'm beginning to think of myself that way, stories are just popping up everywhere."