Sue Monk Kidd
The Mermaid Saint
When a friend told Sue Monk Kidd about an ornately carved chair depicting the legend of a mermaid who became a saint, the idea captured the author’s imagination. Wouldn’t it be interesting, she wondered, to be a saint who was a mermaid in her former life? Kidd developed the image into a novel that reviewers consider as richly textured and satisfying as her debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, which has sold three million copies since its 2002 Viking hardcover release and was named the 2004 BookSense Book of the Year in its Penguin paperback edition.
The Mermaid Chair (Viking, Mar.; starred PW review) features Jessie Sullivan, a 42-year-old happily married woman who returns to the South Carolina Low Country in response to a family crisis. She visits a Benedictine abbey, home to a mysterious chair dedicated to St. Senora, a mermaid before her conversion. The abbey is also home to Brother Thomas, a young monk with whom Jessie falls in love.
“On the surface, it’s a love story between Jessie and a monk, and Jessie and her family, but mostly it’s a love story between Jessie and her own soul,” Kidd tells PW. “She makes a descent into her soul and finds a place that truly belongs to her, spiritually speaking.”
The religious sensibility in the new book is likely to strike a chord with a diverse audience, in much the same way her first novel did. Readers who wrote to Kidd about The Secret Life of Bees came from a variety of religious backgrounds: “Jewish readers, Catholic sisters, evangelical Protestants... the only way I can explain it is that perhaps the work reached some universal place,” she says. For Kidd, the universal truths in both her novels relate to homecoming and the sacred feminine. “I think in many ways we are cut off from our source much of the time. Maybe art can have a mystical function,” says the author, an Episcopalian with self-described mystical and contemplative tendencies. “Art is a way to take us home; there’s something about community and compassion that people with spiritual inclinations can relate to, something about the ability of love to transform our lives. And then there’s the archetype behind many images in novels that engage people profoundly--the search and longing for the divine mother in religions that have not had that experience. My books give voice to that.”
Kidd took an extended retreat following a busy round of publicity appearances after the release of Bees, in part to work on her second book. Beginning April 5, she’s back on the road, promoting Mermaid through a 30-city tour and numerous radio interviews and TV appearances, including segments on the major network morning shows. Her Web site, www.suemonkkidd.com, is being revamped to focus on the new book, and already 300 book groups have signed up to read and discuss The Mermaid Chair simultaneously.
Says Kidd: “Mermaid allowed me to deal with a woman’s emotional complexity at a very difficult and painful time in her life. It’s a journey of awakening, the pilgrimage of a woman trying to find her way home to that deep ground in herself. At the same time, there’s a young monk grappling with profound issues through a crisis of faith. God becomes a presence that engorges everything, the tidal creeks around the island--everything. His presence runs rampant through creation.” --Marcia Ford
Michele Claire Lucas
After several agents had tried unsuccessfully to sell her novels to publishers, Michele Claire Lucas was ready to throw in the towel. “I was really discouraged,” says the 67-year-old writer. “But then, one day, I said, ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life sending out this one book.’ “ That novel was A High and Hidden Place, and Lucas approached her task of finding a publisher with scientific precision: she used Writer’s Market and began alphabetically with the A’s, sending her sample material to any publisher that sounded like it might be interested in fiction like hers.
But a funny thing happened right around the letter E. “I was almost up to F when I found a book called The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington,” says Lucas. “It had been published by Harper San Francisco, and it had a religious theme, so I skipped over E, F and G, and went straight to H. The author had Renée Sedliar’s name in his acknowledgements, so I sent it to her directly.” Lucas felt it was a long shot at best, so she was “absolutely stunned” when she received The Phone Call, the one that every unpublished writer dreams about.
Sedliar, who rescued the novel from the slush pile, says she was drawn in by the book’s “amazing story,” which deals with a French woman’s attempts to remember, and then transcend, a horrible massacre that took place in her childhood. In the story, six-year-old Christine Lenoir is off playing in the woods in June 1944 when German soldiers kill everyone in the town, including her family. After surviving the tragedy, she is raised by loving nuns who spare her the ugly truth, but as an adult in the 1960s, she struggles with flashes of violent memory and gradually pieces together the fragments of her past. Sedliar says the book tells “an important story that is in danger of getting lost,” but that Lucas does so with prose that is “very precise and restrained. Her style is so clean.”
Although Lucas lived for a year in France in the early 1960s and has traveled extensively there on other occasions, she had never heard of the very real massacre that occurred in Oradour-sur-Glane until one day several years ago, when she came across an article about it in the travel section of the New York Times. It “just clicked,” she says. “I had always wanted to tackle the subject of how you deal with faith in God in the face of terrible suffering. It’s a universal question--everyone goes through this on some level.” She conducted historical research and interwove the fictional protagonist’s experiences with what is known about the town and its darkest day.
Harper San Francisco has announced an initial print run of 25,000 copies and will promote the book’s World War II connection. As for the future, Lucas says, she has “quite a few novels finished and tucked in the closet,” and hopes to continue publishing her work. For now, she is enjoying the long-deferred dream of being a writer. “The funny thing is that, as I look back, at the same time almost exactly that the book was sold, another thing I was beginning to think wouldn’t happen, either, happened: my grandson was born. Why do all these good things happen at the same time?” With the joy of being a new grandmother and a published novelist, Lucas says, “I will sometimes still stop whatever I’m doing and be overwhelmed by it. I’ll just stop and smile.” --Jana Riess
Brenda Rickman Vantrease
Welcome to pre-Reformation England: in her debut novel, The Illuminator (St. Martin’s), Brenda Rickman Vantrease re-creates a church on the verge of transformation--John Wycliffe labors over his English translation of the Bible, while the Lollard revolt is percolating. In this world of heady religious change, we meet Finn, an artistic genius who illuminates sacred texts; the widowed Lady Kathryn; and many more personages. Some are wholly fictional, some are based on historical figures, like Julian of Norwich, the English mystic known for, among other things, her prayerful insistence that “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”
This is not just a debut novel, but a breakout novel. Translation rights have sold in at least 10 countries, and St. Martin’s executive editor Hope Dellon has snatched up the sequel, which Vantrease is already writing, and which Dellon hopes to publish in 2007.
Vantrease says she’s not a “Christian writer,” but a “writer who is a Christian.” She thinks the former tend to have agendas. “I just write whatever comes, and because I am a Christian, that’s what comes. This is a book about the love of God, and about ‘all will be well.’ We are in the hands of a loving God in spite of a world that’s apparently going to hell around us.”
Vantrease was an English teacher and librarian who gave 25 years to the Tennessee public school system. Then, fully vested in retirement, she left her school post and immediately began to study the craft of fiction. “I went to writing workshops and I read everything I could get my hands on,” she says, in a sweet Southern accent. Vantrease, who has a longstanding interest in church history and a deep love for the British Isles, initially wanted to write a novel about Julian of Norwich. “But I found out there isn’t enough known about her to carry a narrative, so these other characters grew up around her.”
The Illuminator reads like historical fiction of the old school--grand, sweeping, big. That’s not surprising, given the novelists Vantrease names as her favorites. She loves Anya Seton, and she still rereads Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca on occasion. Though she didn’t model The Illuminator on any particular novel, she says she was influenced by Norah Lofts, who wrote in third-person limited narration, with multiple points of view. “I really liked novels like that because it gave you the chance to see how different people responded to the same thing.”
Dellon thinks Vantrease is right up there with du Maurier and other greats. “I received The Illuminator from Brenda’s agent [Harvey Klinger] around Labor Day 2003. I read it in a few days and said ‘This is it!’ It has authenticity and characters you care about, and just fascinating history. I’ve been publishing historical fiction for most of my 30-year career, and this is some of the best historical fiction I’ve seen.” (The book received a starred PW review.)
Dellon admits that religion is not a specialty at St. Martin’s, and “I don’t know where exactly this fits into the religious market. There are serious religious and moral issues in The Illuminator. There is a seriousness of trying to do right in the world.” It was that moral gravity, as well as the strongly drawn characters, that drew Dellon to the novel.
And whether or not St. Martin’s promotes the book in the religion market, it will take off there, as elsewhere. --Lauren F. Winner
Entertainment with a Soul
Elizabeth Musser likes to say she has two part-time jobs. Not only is she an award-winning novelist, but she and her husband serve as missionaries at a small Protestant church in Lyons, France. In both lines of work, she avoids preaching and simplistic answers, choosing instead to portray a God who cares in the midst of life’s complexity.
“Human relationships are complicated and deep, involving issues of hope, despair, revenge, forgiveness, love, hate, fear and trust,” she says. “As missionaries, my husband and I often work with people wrestling with tough questions of faith. Trite and clichéd answers do not satisfy them.”
Nor do they satisfy most readers of inspirational fiction these days. But that doesn’t mean that Christian novelists can’t offer a message of hope and faith. That’s what Musser has done in her books, including her latest, The Dwelling Place (Bethany House, Apr.), which continues the story of Mary Swan Middleton, the main character of The Swan House (Bethany House, 2001), and her daughter. Both novels are set in Musser’s native Atlanta and are rich with historical details from the 1960s to the present.
“I want my books to convey a God who is involved with everyday life, a down-to-earth Christianity that works,” she says. “I love writing inspirational novels because through them I can show how God has touched my life. I like to think of inspiration fiction as entertainment with a soul.”
The Swan House, which was named one of the top Christian books of 2001 by Amazon.com and a Southern Region ABA bestseller, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl from a wealthy family, touching on issues of race and faith. “My inspiration for this novel came from my upbringing in an affluent neighborhood and the struggles I had as I tried to understand my faith in Christ within the context of wealth,” Musser says.
While a student at Vanderbilt University, Musser spent a semester abroad in France and caught the travel bug. After college, she trained to become a missionary and was sent back to France, where she met a fellow missionary who eventually became her husband. Her quarterly letters to 500 prayer partners back in the U.S. became her writing outlet.
Her first novels, Two Crosses (Victor Books, 1996) and Two Testaments (Chariot Victor, 1997), were part of a trilogy about Algeria’s war for independence from France. The final book, Two Destinies, remains unpublished in the U.S. but was published in German, Dutch and Norwegian. Two Crosses was eventually published in French.
Bethany has marketed her books to the general trade as well as the CBA market. David Horton, Bethany’s editorial director of fiction, estimates her sales are about evenly split between the two. “She’s got good general-independent support, especially in the Southeast,” he notes. Musser will return to that part of the country in late April and May for a series of book signings in Atlanta, including one at the Margaret Mitchell House and at the historical landmark Swan House, which offers tours based on Musser’s book. She also will do a signing in Hilton Head, S.C.
Although The Dwelling Place is billed as a “stand-alone sequel” and Musser isn’t planning a series, she also doesn’t rule it out. “You never know, as an author, when your characters will take over and insist on a little more attention.” --Heidi Schlumpf