"God and faith tend to be taboo subjects for YA fiction," says Cathryn Clinton, whose debut novel, The Calling (Candlewick), introduces a heroine who is not only a firm believer in God but has a calling: Esta Lea, a 12-year-old Southerner, comes from a long line of preachers and discovers that she herself can use faith to heal others. The novel has been praised for its rich, Southern-style storytelling, its supportive but non-preachy approach to religion and its humor. Fans impressed by Clinton's imagination might be startled to hear her say that most of the episodes in the novel, from the miraculous restoration of a blind girl's vision to an offbeat funeral scene, are true or composites of real events.
Like Esta Lea, Clinton comes from a long line of preachers (and a long line of Southern storytellers). Her parents raised her first as a Baptist, and then, as their own orientations changed, involved the family in other churches and missions. In the '70s, as a student attending a conservative boarding school in Asheville, N.C., she began to "work on my own personal faith issues," and that grappling continues to this day. Her husband of 24 years, whom she met during college, shares her faith: he worked as a Mennonite minister for 15 years and together they founded a church in Lancaster, Pa.
Married while still in college, she moved from Florida to attend school with her husband at the University of Iowa. She had two children (who are now 23 and 20), and spent the next 14 years taking courses, one per semester, to earn a B.A. in English. The idea of writing had never occurred to her--but the poets and writers assembled on campus for the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop exerted a profound influence on her.
Clinton wrote and published a few poems, mostly in Mennonite magazines. In reading to her children, she became interested in writing picture books, and published one with a small religion house. Meanwhile, her family was becoming increasingly involved in churches investigating faith healing, in part motivated by the presence of a rare and incurable genetic disease within the family. The story of the blind girl, she says, is "word for word" what her brother witnessed as a member of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which she describes as an independent charismatic church.
As her children grew, Clinton wanted to further her own education, and, choosing between attending a seminary and pursuing her writing, she enrolled in Vermont College's MFA program in Writing for Children. Planning to write picture books if she could not pursue her poetry, she was taken in hand by Norma Fox Mazer, who, along with other faculty, persuaded her that she had to try fiction. "It never occurred to me to write a novel," Clinton recalls. "I thought it was way beyond me. Between writing picture books and poems, I was used to writing 'small.' "
Clinton wrote not one but two novels, under the tutelage of first Mazer and later Candlewick editor Amy Ehrlich, who also was teaching at Vermont. "Amy looked at my manuscripts and said, 'I can do something with these.' And she did!" They went through five drafts for The Calling. Ehrlich was equally enthusiastic about the other novel, A Stone in My Hand, about a Palestinian girl living in the Gaza Strip whose father is killed in a bus bombing.
" 'I've got a great graduation gift for you,' " Clinton recalls Ehrlich telling her as the MFA program ended: Ehrlich presented her with contracts for both books on the same day (the other is A Stone in My Hand). Clinton was overjoyed and amazed--she hadn't thought of trying to sell the manuscripts. With The Calling, she thought the religious content would scare off trade houses and the comedic approach would not fit in with a religion house's line.
Clinton, surprised by the positive reception for her novel, modestly expresses her hopes. "I want to be able to say it's okay to question, and as readers are asking those serious questions, I want them to be able to laugh, too."