Multi-published non fiction author A.J. Kiesling has recently released her debut novel, Skizzer, an intriguing tale of two sisters on a journey of discovery from North Carolina to England. For my review of Skizzer, click here and then read below for fascinating insights from A.J. on:~
Great questions, btw! I enjoyed these thoroughly J
Why Christian fiction?
It’s funny you should ask that, because I didn’t set out to write a distinctly “Christian” novel–instead, I simply wanted to tell a story that anyone could enjoy. Ever since I knew I wanted to write a novel (about 20 years now), I had it fixed in mind that I wouldn’t write a preachy, formulaic, somebody-has-to-get-saved type of novel. Probably the biggest reason for this is that I’ve worked in Christian publishing for over two decades now, and across the years I’ve read my share of bad CBA fiction. Thankfully, the Christian fiction market has “grown up” a lot since then, with more sophisticated storytelling, more believable characters, and more realism sewn into the fabric. Readers respond to a good story well told, regardless of their faith background. If I can nudge someone closer to God, or even just get them thinking a bit about the possibility of His existence, that’s wonderful. I hope that something my characters said lingers in their mind long after they close the book, and it sparks that internal dialogue.
If you think about Jesus’ parables, they weren’t overtly spiritual at all–quite the contrary. He talked about everyday things so His listeners could relate. But imbedded in each of those stories was a golden nugget of Truth that couldn’t be denied.
Writing is obviously in your blood – was there a particular person who encouraged you to nurture your gift?
When I was young, my mother used to read Bible stories to us five kids every night before bedtime. We’d gather in a circle around her and listen wide-eyed to those stories, and through the early years her reading to us fostered a love of storytelling in me. I wrote my first book in second grade–a stapled, hand-illustrated book about horses–but it was a college professor of English who pulled me aside after class one day and told me I had a writing gift that I shouldn’t squander. With his encouragement, I joined the staff of the college literary magazine and newspaper. After that, choosing a major in communications/journalism was a natural path for me.
Tell us about your day job
I am the editorial manager for Xulon Press, a Christian print-on-demand publisher in Central Florida. About 100-plus manuscripts a year move through the editorial department, where we assign them for editing/copyediting before they get typeset. Essentially, Xulon Press is a publishing service that helps authors who want to self-publish their book.
You have written numerous non fiction books ~ what was the transition to writing a novel like?
It was like finding my “mother tongue,” because although I was trained as a journalist (and have journalistic instincts), my first love has always been–and always will be–fiction. The transition to novels was actually very easy for me, but along the way I developed a new appreciation for authors who write incredibly complex, multi-layered novels with fully developed characters. It’s an art, and one that has to be practiced to be perfected. I’m excited to be on this journey at last. If I had my preference, I would write nothing but novels from here on out.
What writing project are you working on now?
I’m in the “mulling over” stage of what might be my next book–a prequel to Skizzer filling in the gaps in the past (Becca and Claire’s young adulthood), or perhaps even picking up the story of the earlier generation of Trowlings.
You have been an editor and been edited! How did you cope with the “being edited” experience?!
Anyone who is a professional editor appreciates what an editor brings to the table, so that part of the process was no problem. My project editor at Revell (Kristin Kornoelje) was INCREDIBLE and pointed out so many things that made Skizzer a better book. At the developmental stage, editorial director Lonnie Hull Dupont forced me out of my comfort zone with the first draft of the story, making me rewrite a new ending and change a key element of the plot that was too “dark” for Revell’s readers (some of the Druidic stuff). In the process, it became not only a different book but a better book.
My growing up years contained a strong sister theme–my closest sister in age was like my twin–and somehow that elemental shaping force in my life spilled onto the page when I sat down to write a novel. My mom tells me that when I was young I would say “skizzer” when I wanted my sister, and that scrap of history figures into the title of my book. Skizzer is simply a childhood word for “sister,” but it also has undertones of the word schism too, and of course that (the idea of separation, and of someone not being who you thought they were) finds its way into the story as well. Around 1990 the title of the book came suddenly into my head one day as I was sitting with my sister by a pool. Over the years bits of the story would surface, but it wasn’t until I visited England in 1996 with my best friend that the setting for the most potent scenes in the book solidified in my mind. England imprinted me powerfully, possibly because my ancestors on both sides are English. Going there felt like coming home.
Claire and Becca are such different personalities - which one is more like you, if at all?
There are bits of me in both characters. I was always bookish and shy like Claire, a person who “sees deeply,” as Colin tells her when they meet on her first trip to England as a girl. But at the same time, when my sister and I were young, my mom tells me I was always dragging her (my sibling) into situations she might have preferred to avoid!
What was your favourite scene to write?
By far, I would have to pick the scene where Claire stumbles through the willow tree glade and comes upon Colin Lockwood tending flowers–her first real meeting with him. In my mind, the scene extends to their walk with Becca down to the stone church with the bell tower and strange carving in the wall, the place “where the real ghost story occurred,” as Colin informs the girls.
How do you go about choosing names for your characters?
Some of the names, such as Claire, came to mind very easily–that one is my youngest daughter’s middle name, and it just fit. The same could be said for Colin Lockwood. His name and the way he looks simply leaped into my mind fully formed one day. Others I have to hammer out, say the name out loud, feel it on my tongue, so to speak, to see if it’s right for the character. My daughter helped me to come up with the name for the abandoned estate in the North Carolina flashback scenes. That old house was inspired by a real “haunted house” in my childhood where we used to play.
Have you travelled to the UK? I‘m thinking you have as you describe it so well. If so, what is your favourite place to visit?
Yes, I have been to the UK twice now–once in 1982 and a second time in 1996, where my best friend and I stayed at a real Rectory Inn bed & breakfast that inspired the English setting for the book. The most charming places we visited were the Lake District (Beatrix Potter country), the Cotswolds, and a tiny town called Sedburgh where we stayed in a wheelwright’s cottage converted to an inn. Our view out the window overlooked a sheep meadow and a narrow road lined with hedgerows. You just don’t GET that in the States (sigh).
Any ideas who you might cast in a movie of Skizzer?
Adult Claire: Frances O’Connor, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Otto
Adult Becca: Rosamunde Pike
Young Becca: Dakota Fanning
Aunt Jess: This one is tough…I can see her so clearly in my mind, but I can’t think of the right actor to play her yet…ok…Cherry Jones
Eugenia Lockwood: Fiona Shaw
Father Maccabee: Michael Gambon
What impact do you hope this book has upon the reader?
Like Claire, I hope they awaken to the reality of God in their lives, whether they have slowly dulled to their once-vibrant faith like she has, or whether they have never considered God as a possibility at all. For all my readers, I would wish for the resurgence of hope in some lost dream–the “fullness of time” moment we all silently long for.
Do you read much yourself? If so, some favourites, please?
I’ve constantly got my nose in a book. The most amazing recent book I read was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (a Brit of course…what is it about that English literary heritage?) This is a near-perfect book to me. I both dreaded and delighted to come to its conclusion. I just finished The Rule of Four also, another delightful read by two young American college graduates.
Other favourites: The Starbridge Series by Susan Howatch, Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and my all-time favourites: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by the Bronte sisters.
What are you reading at the moment?
Favourite movie and favourite line from a movie?
Favourite movie: A Room with a View
Favourite line: “Clever girl” (in Jurassic Park…my oldest daughter and I say this to each other all the time!)
Who inspires you?
Among writers, I’d have to say the Brontes, Susan Howatch, and C.S. Lewis.
Please tell us a little about your family
I grew up in a family of five children, a big, noisy, happy household. Today I’m a single mom with two beautiful teenage daughters, Kate and Emily.
Please share some of your faith journey…
I grew up in a Christian family, and we went to church “every time the doors were open.” That early grounding served me well. I remember asking Jesus into my heart at age 8 (it’s written in my childhood Bible), but I strayed from my faith as a teenager. God never let me go, however, and after several years I felt His tugging me back into the sheepfold. At age 21 I had a profound faith awakening that solidified my beliefs and made them my own, not just my parents’. Over the years God has been there, teaching me about love, teaching
me about hope, teaching me about perseverance, but most of all teaching me about His astounding grace.
Some essential Aussie questions
When/if you make the trip Down Under what do you want to see first:~
A platypus or a koala?
Hands-down, a koala!
I’ll have to pick a cricket match because I don’t know what Aussie Rules Footy is! J
Any last words?
Our lives are stories; as the apostle Paul said, we are “living epistles”–each with our own story to tell. Thanks for reading, and don’t neglect your own story!
Thanks Angie ~ much fun!