A. J. Kiesling answers questions about her writing style, her writing habits, and about her new book Skizzer.
Tell us about Skizzer .
The story centers on two sisters, Claire (the main character) and Becca, her younger sibling. At the outset, Becca has disappeared–up and leaving her husband with just a cursory note offering no real explanation. Claire drives to North Carolina to pursue a hunch that Becca might have fled to the town where they grew up, perhaps taking refuge with their elderly Aunt Jess. She stops at a place where they used to play as children–an old estate the local kids called haunted–and finds a letter addressed to "Skizzer" inside a sister-secret box she and Becca left there more than twenty years earlier. The letter says "something both terrible and wonderful has happened" and that Becca needs time to herself, urging Claire not to look for her. But of course that's exactly what Claire and her distraught brother-in-law do. The story weaves between the present and the past through flashbacks to the girls' growing up years in North Carolina. The search for Becca ultimately takes Claire and her brother-in-law to England, to a town that imprinted the girls heavily in their youth. The theme of the story is that the people we think we know best don't always turn out to be who we thought they were.
How did you come up with the idea and name for Skizzer?
The idea for Skizzer is mostly fiction, but the word "skizzer" itself very much has roots in my life story. I grew up in a large family with five children, and my next nearest sibling in age–my sister–was almost like my twin. My mother tells me that when we were little bitty girls, I would call her my "skizzer," being unable to say "sister" properly as a toddler. So the word and the family story stuck in my mind over the years. About twenty years ago, when I first thought about writing a novel, a germ of an idea took shape. I knew I wanted to write a book about sisters, as that was always such a powerful influence in my life, and the name Skizzer came to me but nothing more. With that inspiration came a renewed invigoration to write the story, but over the years I stopped and started it several times, always dropping it in frustration. I didn ’t feel ready, as if something inside me needed to season, or that I needed to accumulate more experiences before I could make what I felt inside resonate with readers on the page. Fast-forward several years, and I started writing Skizzer again, but all I had was an opening scene—this vivid scene that I couldn’t get out of my head, but I couldn ’t see anything beyond it. Still, I started writing it, in third person, but for some reason the story felt clunky. I let it rest for a few months and then had another inspired moment: “Maybe I should try writing the story in first-person,” I mused. And when I did, the story of Skizzer and especially the character of Claire sprang to life.
You captured the adventure of childhood very well between the two sisters Becca and Claire. I wanted to join their adventures! Did you share adventures with your siblings or friends when you were a child? I know I did. Those were the times when you could go investigating in the woods like Becca, Claire, and Joe did and only be afraid of the things your imagination conjured up rather than being afraid of someone accosting you. I miss those times.
Oh yes, you nailed it there. Growing up in North Carolina in the '60s, we five kids were given free rein to plunder the woods behind our house, and nobody worried because what harm could possibly come to you in the woods? (Yes, it was a very different time.) Our mother would call us home by the dinner bell, and we would stumble back into the "real world" tired but happy, sometimes scratched up by tree branches andbriars , but that just went with the territory. Our neighborhood, like the one Claire and Becca grow up in, was on the very outskirts of town–half civilized, half rural and wild. My siblings and I played at an abandoned estate we called the Haunted House, and down the road was a vacant lot inexplicably filled with boulders. Across the street from the Boulders was a magical place the neighborhood kids dubbed Shady Rest with huge canopy oaks and dirt roads winding through it. I think of how much fun we had back then–the wars and dramas and vine-hanging we experienced–and feel regret that today's children miss out on so much wholesome outdoor play. Those woods, especially, became the breeding ground for my imagination. The glade described in garden behind the Rectory Inn is very much like one my sister and I found in the woods behind our house.
My favorite character is Gretchen because she was the most mysterious and complex. Who is your favorite character and why?
Without a doubt, my favorite character is Colin Lockwood because he is in many ways my idea of the perfect male. Like Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, he has that irresistible combination of aloofness and genuine goodness once you get to know him. He has a certain mystique about him that draws Claire like crazy, but instead of finding bad character underneath she is surprised to discover that in this case still waters run VERY deep. Colin is what I would call a good guy/bad guy, inherently good but still quite a bit bohemian. He has long hair, and in the original manuscript he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes (tobacco), but my publisher made me take that out! I have fallen in love with this character and can't wait to pursue more about him and Claire in a sequel.But how cool to hear that Gretchen was your favorite character! I didn't see that one coming.
Skizzer deals with family secrets. When should family secrets be revealed and when should some stay hidden?
My parents' generation believed in hiding skeletons in the family closet, locking embarrassing (or shocking) secrets away from prying eyes. The trouble is, those secrets always find a way out of the closet sooner or later, and sometimes with disastrous results. We all have secrets, but I believe Jesus really meant what He said when He told us "the truth shall make you free." It's so much better to bring secrets into the light of day, where often they are stripped of their "taboo." Even if the truth hurts, it's so much better than being deceived. Deceit is a form of betrayal to me.
What do you want your readers to take away after reading Skizzer?
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.
Newbie authors are told to "write what you know." What aspects of Skizzer was most familiar to you and what did you have to research?
I'd have to say the entire story falls under the "what I know" category, because I know what it's like to be a sister, I know what it's like to grow up in semi-rural North Carolina of several decades ago, I know the settings in the story–both in North Carolina and England–and I know what it's like to discover family secrets (doesn't every family have these?). I'm a huge believer in writing what you know, and I would recommend any newbie author stick with that, because this is where you'll find your truest, most authentic voice.
How long did it take to write Skizzer?
I wrote the book in spurts of stolen time–long weekends away, on vacation, late at night–in between working a full-time job and single-parenting two teenage girls, so it took much longer a span of time than it should have, probably three years. If I could stretch all the actual writing time back-to-back, I don't think it would be longer than three to four months.
What was it like to get "The Call?"
It was wonderful…although in this case I think it was an email! You know how everything is these days–people (including agents) do as much as they can by email, not phone. My agent had shopped the story around, and I had a good friend at Baker/Revell who already knew my strengths as a writer and editor (journalistically), and so it was actually a bit of a leg-up to have her interested in the proposal.
Which is worse? First Draft or Revision?
Omigosh, there's no question–revision is by FAR the hardest part of writing. I can't imagine any writer answering that differently, but maybe someone out there would disagree After I completed the manuscript and it was in the editorial process atRevell , the editorial director called and told me the story had taken too "dark" a turn toward the latter third (the back-story pertaining to the Druids and the pendant passed down in theTrowling family). We had to pull the book from the spring 2007 list and postpone it by an entire year! Talk about painful, but in the rewriting process the story got much stronger and much better…but fun? No, at the time it was anything but. Still, now I'm very glad I was forced to rework it.
Your writing is crisp and concise. Skizzer played in my mind's eye like a movie. How does a new writer learn this skill?
You have just given me the biggest compliment I could ever hope for as a writer! Thank you. Now, to answer your question, in a word I would have say: journalism. To me, no better "school of writing" exists than a career in journalism, because you're forced to pare down your writing, lose the flowery adjectives and "there are" constructions, and write in the active voice. Instead, you focus on finding strong, "muscular" verbs and vivid descriptions. I've always been a vivid writer, but when I go back and read my early stuff I want to puke (sorry!). Over the years of working as a news writer and editor, I learned to write tight and edit my own copy. That's not to say everyone has to go this route, because they don't, but invariably I find that former journalists make some of the best novelists. I'm also a dyed-in-the-wool movie lover, so maybe I write stories the way I envision them being played out on a big screen–or the story screen we all have in our minds.
Do you have any habits or vices you need before you are in writing mode like sharpening all the pencils in the house even though you might use a computer, hopping around your desk on one foot, needing to go to your favorite coffee shop for coffee even though you just received a fab cappuccino maker for Christmas, or have to surround yourself with gummy bears, Pepsi, and Oreo cookies?
This one made me laugh! I can't say as I have any writing quirks, unless you call writing in the mountains (when I can get away) or in a favorite coffeehouse quirky. One thing I do to help myself when I'm "stuck" with a certain scene or part of the plot is go for a long walk, preferably along some scenic route.
How do you mark your place in a book? Book mark, dog-ear, bubble gum wrapper, or last month's light bill? I have a strange obsession with matching the bookmark with the the colors on the cover.Sheesh!
You're so crazy…I love it I do use a bookmark, or a discarded piece of junk mail, or sometimes the return-date slip the library tucks inside the book. Dog-earring drives me nuts–it's like defacing the Mona Lisa!
Would you rather have a house full of books or use an electronic reader? Me, a house full of books but an electronic reader for travel. But I would still carry an overnight bag full of books. So what's the point of the reader, right?
A house full of books! Oh wait, I already do And now you've just given me a great idea about the e-reader. What a perfect way to travel light.
What's next on the horizon?
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
My singles book just came out, "Where Have All the Good Men Gone?" a nonfiction title from Harvest House about the disconcerting cultural trend of so many Christian women still single despite their longing for marriage. But I'm itching to get back to fiction, and as the love story between Claire and Colin grew I knew this would be the direction my next novel would take. Every reader who gives me personal feedback on the story indicates they want to hear more about these two, so now my head is buzzing with ideas andplotlines. Alas, I just need to get away so I can write again (sigh).
Any final thoughts?
We love stories and so that’s why we read them. But never forget that your own life is a story—a magnificent, still-being-written story with you as the protagonist and God as the Author. The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the "author and finisher of our faith." How profound it is to be in the midst of a story—both our own (fulfilling our individual destinies in life) and His never-ending story, which will sweep us all into eternity. To me that’s exciting.