Eliza Griswold: Writing in the post-9/11 world

It is the rare writer who can write about what she is most interested in, be compensated, and research her first book, too. Yet Eliza Griswold, a published poet and award-winning journalist, found herself in this enviable position soon after 9/11. She, like many of her generation of journalists, went from being a New York City–based stringer for the Sunday Times of London to an on-location investigative journalist. Within two weeks of that tragic day, Griswold was reporting from Pakistani refugee camps "with 9/11 dust [still] on my shoes, as she puts it.

To hear her tell it, Griswold, 37, who describes herself as a religious "seeker who has had powerful faith experiences with evangelical Christians and Muslims alike, had been preparing her whole life to write The Tenth Parallel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Aug.), her first book. "I have always been interested in the overlap between human rights and religion, and the paradox of where religion doesn't protect human rights and where it does, says Griswold in a phone interview from Rome, where she is just completing a one-year fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Early in her journalism career, while reporting on the phenomenon of Jordanian honor crimes, Griswold had an epiphany that partially motivated the writing of The Tenth Parallel: "When I did that story, I learned that Muhammad had, as revealed by God, protected women's rights, women's property rights, and so on in Islam. These crimes of honor, while we associated them with Islam, were actually Arab culture.

Word spread among journalists of Griswold's interest in similar topics, and she was soon assigned freelance work by the New York Times Magazine. Once she was on site, expenses paid, she would avail herself of the opportunity to research for The Tenth Parallel. The concept of the 10th parallel, an actual line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, has been promoted by evangelical Christians (who call it the "10 40 Window, referring to the band of land between 10 and 40 degrees latitude where the world's poorest people and also most of the world's Muslims live) as a front line between Christians and Muslims, where about half of the world's population of each group lives and comes into contact with each other daily. Wanting to explore "how religion comes to bear in conflicts that [have] nothing to do with religion on the face of [those conflicts], Griswold found both violent and harmonious examples of Christian-Muslim interaction.

Her scrappiness is evident in The Tenth Parallel—she lives with Malaysian aboriginals in their huts and takes notes by pen and paper. Her adaptability will suit her well on her upcoming 13-city book tour with confirmed national appearances on NPR's Fresh Air and PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. The Tenth Parallel's publisher will also be spotlighting the book through its "FSG First Look Program and providing a reading group guide as well. —Asma Hasan

Shauna Niequist: Sharing food, hope

Her first book, Cold Tangerines (Zondervan, 2007), focused on life's little blessings. But when it came time to work on her latest book, Shauna Niequist was going through life's biggest changes.

Amid job loss and a painful miscarriage, the Chicago-area author wrote Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way (Zondervan, Aug.), a collection of essays that confront delicate transitions and the beauty in brokenness. Niequist, 33, said she needed to resolve these challenges in her own life, and she also knew others who needed a reminder that tough situations bring growth.

"The dream is that you catch yourself sooner every time, Niequist says. "I think you always have the initial breakdown. But hopefully whether it's six months later or 15 minutes in, you'll say, ‘That was a little freak-out, but I've been around this block enough times to know you always make it around.'

Most of these tales contain memories of the food Niequist tasted in those moments. Through a description of the flourless chocolate cake with crème anglaise sitting atop her coffee table, she puts the reader at the scene of her latest dinner party. Niequist compares her use of food as description to Anne Lamott, who points out geography and nature, or Lauren Winner, who describes the books on her shelf.

"I'm a texture person, I'm not a dry ideas person, Niequist says. "For me, so much of how my senses work is through food: the smell, the taste, the texture, how it works together.

The literary quality of Bittersweet necessitates a marketing campaign that allows Niequist's voice to come alive, according to Robin Geelhoed, associate manager of public relations for Zondervan. "When Shauna reads essays, you feel like you know her and have found a friend, Geelhoed says. "We want as many people as possible to experience that.

Niequist plans to use the essay format and food descriptions in her next book, Bread and Wine. She hopes to show that communion, like change, doesn't have to be hidden behind doors, but can be shared by our closest friends around our living room coffee table. —Jackie Walker

Adam Elenbaas: Using strong medicine

First-time author Adam Elenbaas says his mother and father are reading their son's memoir, Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest (Tarcher, Aug.) in their book club. In the coming-of-age tale, Elenbaas chronicles not only his substance abuse and sexual promiscuity that leads to an STD, but also his father's extramarital affair and emotional breakdown.

"All the members of my family have become honest and reflective about everything that went down in our family, says Elenbaas, whose father wrote the epilogue. Elenbaas's own journey back to sobriety and emotional stability took him to a Peruvian jungle, where he participated in almost 50 shamanic ceremonies that involved ayahuasca, a psychedelic jungle vine. It purged him, literally and spiritually. But it's strong medicine. "Ayahuasca isn't for everyone, he says; he especially wants people to understand that it has a healing function, and he doesn't advocate the recreational use of psychedelic drugs.

He describes in his book some of his drug-induced visions, including many visions of Jesus. His father was a Methodist minister (who has since left the ministry) who pastored parishes in Minnesota. Rebelling against his Minnesota Protestant upbringing, the teenage Elenbaas chose to become a Bible-toting "Baptist fundamentalist who learned to speak in tongues, and he attended an evangelical Christian college. Since that time, his religious practice has changed, yet he feels more Christian than ever, albeit a universalist believer whose faith embraces paradox. "I feel like Jesus was a prophet and healer who was one of many, planting a holy doctrine, Elenbaas says.

Elenbaas, 29, recently left his job working with adult schizophrenics in New York and is involved in a Christian exploration of the ayahuasca experience. And he is working on a second book drawing on his life in what he considers its second stage. "What I'm writing now is very much about relationships, sexuality, money, career—your place in life now that you have to deal with the culture you're part of, he says. —Marcia Z. Nelson

Anne Jackson: Giving Permission

Anne Jackson has a pretty good bead on why folks are disillusioned with organized religion.

"Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in church knows that we like to pretend everything is fine, she says. "There is the pressure that church is a place for good people; it's a place to show off our morality because it makes us feel like better people.

Jackson's forthrightness is behind her book, Permission to Speak Freely (Thomas Nelson, Aug.), her Web site, blog, and pretty much her whole life. She and her husband have recently completed the Ride:Well 2010 cycling tour to raise awareness and funds for Blood:Water Mission.

"There is a tension between things in our life that are broken and the church because we think the church is telling us to be perfect, says Jackson, 30, who is an ordained pastor and attends an Anglican church.

That status and affiliation is a far cry from her rigid Baptist upbringing that caused deep hurt in her and her family. Her struggles with religion culminated in one question on her blog: "What is the one thing you feel you can't say in church?

The responses led to Permission to Speak Freely, an honest look at Jackson's past, her addictions, and her eventual redemption and healing. Sprinkled throughout are photos, drawings, e-mails, and handwritten notes of responses to her question.

"One person talking about their struggles becomes a movement. One person says something honest to someone, who talks to another, says Jackson. "Once we experience the freedom that comes from talking about our brokenness, we want to share that freedom with others.

Jackson calls it the gift of going second, one of the themes of her book.

The author will begin a 15–20-city tour, as well as continue the blog campaign that inspired her book. Jackson will appear on mainstream and Christian radio shows, write op-ed pieces for print media, and use her social media platform to share her passion. Extensive print and online advertising is planned. She and her husband, who is her manager, travel the country for speaking engagements, advocate for the children's group Compassion International, and are planning another book. —Ann Byle