Thursday, February 23, 2012

Guest Post: One Author's Perspective on Faith and Fiction (Shannon Wiersbitzky

Faith. It can be a sensitive subject, particularly in today’s society. Bring up the topic of church or religion, and depending on where you are, people start to squirm.

As the idea for The Summer of Hammers and Angels was forming in my mind, I knew that faith was central to the story line. The main character, Delia, is in need of some serious help—her home is being condemned and her mama is in the hospital.

In that situation, some people might turn to prayer right away. But Mama isn’t a believer in prayer, preferring to rely on her own hard work, so Delia hasn’t grown up praying. With Mama gone, Delia is forced to stay with her neighbors, which includes Tommy “dense-as-as-stump” Parker, and they are church-going folk.

Questions tugged at the edge of my mind as the chapters formed. How many kids go to church today? Will they be able to relate to Delia? Will the biblical story references make sense to readers? Will they understand Delia’s confusion as she tries to reconcile the different views about church and prayer that exist for Mama and others in town? Will the fact that the story includes religion turn kids, or their parents, off?

In working with my editor, Stephen Roxburgh, I realized that writing about faith or church or prayer is really no different from writing about any other subject. Here are the thoughts that helped me, and may help other writers out there too.

Be honest about the plot, the setting, the characters.

The Summer of Hammers and Angels takes place in a small West Virginia town. If you’ve ever visited the state, you’d know that in many spots, it is hard to skip rope without hitting at least three different churches. Church and prayer are simply part of everyday life.

As an author, I wasn’t trying to convince kids they should attend church or provide a singular perspective on faith, I was simply trying to tell Delia’s story. I constantly checked myself that the view portrayed was that of this particular young girl, not me.

Respect the topic.

Growing up in a smattering of states across the Midwest and East Coast, church was always part of my life. I attended Lutheran and Presbyterian services with my parents, running around at many a potluck dinner, sampling the desserts brought by folks with names that ranged from T through Z.

In the summer, when I stayed with my grandparents in West Virginia, church had a whole different feel to it. On Sundays we were either at the Church of God or the Baptist Church, neither of which were real big on people sitting quietly. There was always singing, arms raised when the spirit moved, and shouts of Amen or Hallelujah or That’s right, when the pastor said something the congregation agreed with. As a kid I loved attending church where everyone got to be loud.

The church in my story is a mish-mash of them all. The point wasn’t to portray one right way of doing things, or conversely to mock a way of believing. The story is meant to convey the way things happen in the fictional town of Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia, in this one particular church community.

Make it believable.

This last point certainly relates to the first. Now the title includes both angels and hammers, so it isn’t that little Delia sits around waiting for the hand of God to reach down and solve all her problems. Despite her utter lack of any sort of home-improvement skill, she gets to work on that house in desperate need of repair.

Realizing the task is too big for herself and her friends, Delia prays. Standing in front of the entire congregation, she asks for help and her prayers are answered...through the kindness and generosity of everyday angels sitting right near her. For Delia, that was authentic. In that town, in that church, when the need became apparent, folks responded. They cooked and hammered and sewed and acted like family.

Any story, regardless of topic, needs to be believable—good writing can make even the most far-fetched ideas work. When writing about faith, characters might experience a miracle in the sense that the heavens open or they may be strengthened by faith to make their own changes, or a million options in between. There isn’t one right answer. But whatever the answer, through the writing, readers must be absolutely convinced that it is the only outcome that could have occurred in that moment.

In writing The Summer of Hammer and Angels, one idea I kept coming back to is that for me and many others, church or a church family can be a place of strength, comfort, and hope. And that is exactly what Delia was searching for. I’m glad she found it. 
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  1. Thank you for this interview. I enjoyed reading about how the author balances out faith, church and believing in a fiction novel for teens. I am a Christian and I appreciate when an author is brave enough to write about Faith. And show, in the end, just what faith and prayer can do for your mind, your heart and your soul. Thanks again, so much!

    1. Thanks Jamie! I hope you enjoy the book....let me know if I got the balance right. :-)