I’ve almost completed writing and editing (first round) on my new novel and am looking forward to hearing back from a few publishers considering it. Meanwhile I’m not forgetting my first novel, and lately I had the honour of being featured on The Mighty Pen–an excellent program on HopeStreamRadio. For those of you who’d like to hear me read a bit of The Third Grace, check it out!
In celebration of typing “the end” to my second novel, I brewed up a wonderful soup (made to the tastes of Libby, my main character), which I have dubbed Drunken Pepper Beef Pot. Besides the obvious ingredients of roasted bell peppers (the surplus currently drowning in Spanish olive oil and awaiting a salad in my near future) and chunks of cold beef roast (and various other leftovers, making this a variation of “Fridge Soup” spoken about elsewhere in my blog), I added a healthy bouquet of fresh parsley, about half a bottle of red wine, and a swig of maple syrup. This pot of soup deserves a rainy day! Come share a bowl with me–or, at least, get ready to read my novel, when I can find a publisher for it.
4 responses to ““THE END””
One of my favourite writers, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote a whole essay on the profound subject of cheese. Please enjoy this excerpt:
The waiter brought me cheese, indeed, but cheese cut up into contemptibly small pieces; and it is the awful fact that, instead of Christian bread, he brought me biscuits. Biscuits—to one who had eaten the cheese of four great countrysides! Biscuits—to one who had proved anew for himself the sanctity of the ancient wedding between cheese and bread! I addressed the waiter in warm and moving terms. I asked him who he was that he should put asunder those whom Humanity had joined. I asked him if he did not feel, as an artist, that a solid but yielding substance like cheese went naturally with a solid, yielding substance like bread; to eat it off biscuits is like eating it off slates. I asked him if, when he said his prayers, he was so supercilious as to pray for his daily biscuits. He gave me generally to understand that he was only obeying a custom of Modern Society. I have therefore resolved to raise my voice, not against the waiter, but against Modern Society, for this huge and unparalleled modern wrong.
One response to “CHEESE”
Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become. (C.S. Lewis)
I lurk on a few writers’ online message boards, and the other day someone posted about his dislike of “literary fiction” (as opposed to “genre fiction,” such as historical or mystery novels). Several subsequent responses showed this abhorrence to be common.
Now, my stories have been described by some as literary, which I take as a compliment, even if my first publisher for marketing purposes insisted The Third Grace be categorized as a “contemporary women’s” novel (in other words, genre fiction).
It’s true that literary fiction’s often depressing realism is based on a pessimistic and even nihilistic worldview. I’ve run into lots of such writing (more often Euro-Canadian than American, for some reason) that’s just plain hard work to read. And as for short stories, even many Christian literary journals valued for their high quality of writing celebrate the edgy over the orthodox, demanding a level of artistic and academic snobbishness that can be very intimidating, so that we ask:
- “What if I don’t ‘get’ the story’s point?”
- “What’s with the big words?”
- “Does this writer think she’s better than I am?”
I sometimes wonder if there’s a contest going on among literary writers to use the most arcane vocabulary. (See how I did that—slipped in the word “arcane,” meaning understood by few? Admission: I actually had to look it up to double-check its meaning. But then, I like the dictionary.) What makes fiction literary, anyway?
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit . . . works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.
Literary fiction of this sort, fuelled by Christian thinking, can create real and enduring works of art.
Goodreads places some of my favourite books onto its literary shelf:
- Pride and Prejudice (An excellent commentary on the society of Jane Austen);
- Memoirs of a Geisha (Took me right back to the Japan I visited in the 1970s, immersing me in the country’s ancient culture and giving me insight on its foundational beliefs);
- The Book Thief (Oh, the pathos!);
- Room (Wow, have you read this creepily wonderfully horrifyingly entertaining novel?);
- Water for Elephants (Historically amazing; I’m using the basic time-flash structure of this one for my current work-in-progress);
- All the Light We Cannot See (My top read of the year; I recommend it to everyone—along with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—for insight into realities of WWII);
- Poisonwood Bible (I ground my teeth through Kingsolver’s underlying message and disdain for faith, but the literary merit was fantastic, and it all caused me to think about how I myself would have written her story).
And so on—you get the idea.
Huffington Post makes a good point in an article on literary versus genre fiction:
In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.
We all have our own tastes and opinions when it comes to writing and reading. Well-crafted genre fiction is fantastic for entertainment, and I devour it at night or on the beach. But I really value literary fiction based on a soundly biblical worldview, and I wish many more Christians would set their sights on writing literarily in order to introduce the gospel of Jesus Christ (not blatantly but thematically and symbolically, evangelizing through the back door of story) to an audience thirsty for literature that takes them into deeper meaning—perhaps back to the Bible itself.
Who better than Christians to comment on culture, politics, the human condition? Who more prepared than Christians to bare heart and soul in emotional journey that explains the universe and ourselves?
- What fiction have you read lately that touches you deeply?
- Do you shy away from reading literary fiction and, if so, why?
- What novel, for you, is the perfect blend between “entertaining” and “meaningful”?
ANNOUNCING THE JUNE 1 RELEASE OF MY NEW BOOK!
Roots and Branches traces the image of the tree throughout the fiction of G. K. Chesterton, interpreting the underlying message of his religious convictions through biography and literary analysis. This book introduces the uninitiated to a classic British author, allows students of Chesterton to mine his enigmatic work for metaphysical connotation, and encourages current-day writers to build symbolism into their own stories.
So if you’ve ever wondered what good ole GKC might have meant with his rather abstruse fiction, you’ll enjoy reading Roots and Branches. If you’ve only vaguely heard about him (maybe watched one of his Father Brown mysteries on BBC), Roots and Branches is a good intro. If you, like me, are a writer looking to enrich your own fiction with symbolism (the reason I chose GKC as a research subject in the first place), this is the book for you!
BACKSTORY: I was minding my own business and working on my current novel last fall when, out of the blue, I got a strange email from a man asking for more info on an article I’d written about a novel he was reading (The Flying Inn). He introduced himself as a charter member of the Central Florida American Chesterton Society (the ACS has something like 85 chapters throughout the States, with some international presence as well as a quarterly magazine, Gilbert). I answered his questions and was in turn answered by . . . silence. Three weeks later he contacted me again with his true motivation: He was a small publisher interested in my graduate research at Briercrest (2001) and would like to do business with me.
Voila! Today I formally present the results of my new alliance with Wayne Stahre of The Habitation of Chimham Publishing.
Isn’t the cover lovely? My sister, Lorenda Harder, created the pen-and-ink sketch, with her daughter Averil assisting on the technical side of things. The publisher scored a foreword by Dale Alquist, president of the ACS, and several other Chesterton scholars weigh in as well with endorsements (among them Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent, mega-blogger Brandon Vogt, and GKC expert John Coates).
In a few days you’ll be able to find Roots and Branches at your favourite online bookstore. Or watch for me and my pile of copies at a conference near you!
4 responses to “ROOTS AND BRANCHES”
FLYING BEYOND THE STARS: CHRISTIANS WRITING FICTION
It’s said that reading fiction requires willing suspension of disbelief. We writers strive to weave a fictional dream of gossamer threads and avoid anything that might break the spell we cast.
And so we choose our genre and build our story idea around specific conventions—checking vocabulary lists for children’s sci-fi, building psychological tension into thrillers, consulting timelines for historical fiction. We study the markets and adapt our approach to connect with the audience in mind. There’s no end to the preparation and research we undergo as we hone our craft by studying how-to books and attending writers’ workshops and reading great literary works.
Our method is limited only by our diligence.
Popular writers apply a variety of stylistic methods in their novels—think of the unconventional plot of The Time Traveler’s Wife, the language of Harry Potter’s magical spells, the sensuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Generally speaking, we can regard genre as neutral (excepting, perhaps, erotica or horror, where the purpose of the fictional dream might be sinful).
As Christian writers of fiction, we are even more equipped than secular authors, with metaphysical resources to employ many artistic methods; Francis Schaeffer said,
The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.
But fiction writing is not just about creative method, which varies over time and across cultures. Message is also intrinsic to great story; underlying theme animates the tale and conveys the writer’s main point. Inherent message is pivotal to true literature and must be balanced against the method. Leland Ryken (in The Christian Imagination) put it thus:
Literature is built on a grand paradox: It is a make-believe world [fictional method] that nonetheless reminds us of real life and clarifies it for us [spiritual message].
I once attended a panel on which Christian agents, authors, and editors were asked what was more important to fiction—method or message. Did they favour character- and plot-driven manuscripts of high quality, or was theological meaning peremptory? The ensuing discussion criticized the heavy-handedness that for so long defined “Christian” fiction as something that imparted moral lessons.
The sweep of literary history shows Aesop’s fables teaching ethics, cycle plays in the Middle Ages dramatizing Bible lessons, Sunday school papers of the last generation promoting norms of right living. But, although didactic prose has fallen out of favour, even today’s most superficial novels (such as Fifty Shades of Gray) inevitably shout out the underlying values of the writer. As Steve Turner has noted in Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts:
Writing is inseparable from a point of view . . . You can’t write and not have a point of view.
So how do we, as Christian writers of fiction, ensure our spiritual message comes through our genre’s method?
Before we set fingers to keyboard, we must know our biblical material—at least the basic principles we intend to convey—whether we actually quote Scripture or write in the most veiled and elusive manner. Let me refer again to the wisdom of Ryken:
Christians believe that the Bible and the system of doctrine derived from it are authoritative for thought and practice. Christian involvement with literature, therefore, begins with the belief that the Bible and its doctrines will determine how we should view literature itself and will provide a standard by which to measure the intellectual content and morality of literature that we read and write.
Paul the Apostle, grappling with allegations made by legalists trying to discredit his message of grace, argued for allowing changes in method of communication in order to suit the audience—as long as the message didn’t wander from the truth of the Word (Gal. 1; 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul made cultural and stylistic changes in the way he preached but never compromised God’s propositions. In the same way, our unchanging message becomes appealing to fiction readers when we adapt our method to their sensibilities.
Great Christian fiction is able to “steal past a certain inhibition,” as C.S. Lewis put it; that is, transcendent morals properly fictionalized can slip by the sleeping dragons of reader resistance to truth.
(First appeared as “Method and Message” Fall 2014 in Inscribe’s Fellowscript Magazine)
2 responses to “FLYING BEYOND THE STARS”
I’m currently in the South of France, where the countryside in warmer seasons is saturated in lavender and olive, yellow and azure. But it is winter even here, and so the colours are more subdued–except in bakery windows!
On this vacation again I’ve pressed my nose up against the glass of many patisseries and boulangeries (they still make a difference here between which shops sell sweet delicacies and which yeasty breads). I’ve sampled my fair share as well, with more to come. And there’s one thing I’ve noticed over and again:
French baking always tastes as good as it looks.
This comes as a surprise to me every time I bite into a crusty croissant, flakes flying into the air, or lick a dollop of chocolate from a mousse cake, or crush the ripe raspberry of a tart, its flavour exploding in my mouth.
It surprises me that such beauty to the eye gives such pleasure to the taste buds, that the gastronomic reality is equal to the artistic presentation. (I sound almost sacramental here!) I have to admit that this is not the truth for most Canadian bakeries, where too often pristine cakes smothered in snowy icing and piped in berry blue taste of styrofoam wrapped in bitter lard–a temptation only to naive children who won’t believe for a while yet that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.
And yet here in France, it seems, every bite is true.
I see a philosophical corollary here, of course: Am I internally the person I attempt to project outwardly? Am I made of quality ingredients or substandard fluff? Does my character satisfy or disappoint?
But I have to be honest here. Call me shallow, but more important to me at this moment–as I wander the cobblestones and backstreets of a country where father taught son taught grandson the great culinary arts, where ingredients are treated as family secrets, where agriculture is a proud tradition and people shop the local markets daily–more important is my mouth.
5 responses to “FRENCH BAKING”
I just signed my second book contract! The flush of excitement (fear?) isn’t nearly as overwhelming this time, maybe partly because publishing this book isn’t really a “new venture” but a reworking of graduate research I completed back in 2001.
This is the brief story behind my upcoming book, ROOTS AND BRANCHES: THE SYMBOL OF THE TREE IN THE IMAGINATION OF G. K. CHESTERTON:
When I returned to the classroom, after finishing off home-educating the third child, I found just the scholarly and spiritual nourishment I was looking for. Seminary offered me access to the brilliant minds of godly professors who urged me on towards my goal of clarifying my religious beliefs and rebooting my literary skills so that I could write theologically informed fiction. It worked, though it took me a while. My subsequent novel, The Third Grace, won a Canada-wide, “book of the year”-type of award in 2012 and (besides all sort of editing and other writing-related work) I’ve placed in several short story contests as well. I’ve been busy with drafting my second novel and am on the brink of sending off a proposal for it to attract the agent of my dreams.
So when, a couple of months ago, I received an email out of the blue from a small publishing house interested in my decade-old research on G. K. Chesterton–the late-Victorian apologist, essayist, and novelist–I faltered. The publisher told me how, as a member of the American Chesterton Society, he was reading a novel by GKC that needed explanation–and he found my article online and loved it. Still, I couldn’t quite believe there was a niche audience wanting to read an academic book full of footnotes, but the publisher patiently prodded me, answered my questions, assured me of veto power, raved about the content, and promised me some fantastic endorsements–which he is delivering on.
For example, Dale Ahlquist (whom I repeatedly reference in my research) is one of the Chesterton experts lined up to say nice things about the book, such as:
There are few intellectual exercises more rewarding than the close reading of a Chesterton text. And too few critics have made the effort. . . . Perhaps they are intimidated to offer a critical analysis of a writer who is himself a master literary critic. But Deb Elkink has risen to the challenge.
So I’ve signed and am now immersed in edits and emails and eating/sleeping/dreaming all things Chesterton. And I like it. I’m having fun and learning loads.
Moral of the story: Write with all your heart. You never know who will read your words–or when–and bring them back to you.
But now my novel manuscript is calling me . . .
2 responses to “CONTRACT”
I am so delighted to have won TWO honourable mentions (with the third short story I entered also selected as one of 35 finalists) in this wide-reaching contest that attracted well over 1,000 entries, awarding only 12 prizes. And in my delight I’ve been sharing the news everywhere, many friends and associates rejoicing with my giggling joy.
I mean, who’d know if I didn’t tell them?
It’s encouraging to me to be recognized by such a popular, international contest (judged blind, my name not appearing on the entries). The money I received wasn’t significant, nothing like the Grace Irwin prize offered yearly by our own Canadian organization, The Word Guild. But gaining recognition in these types of contests tells me that I’m on the right track–and every writer needs that sort of encouragement. I hope that my advertising spurs on other writers in my circles to enter contests or send out pieces for publication, even older work like the stories I submitted. We need to get the word out that writers are appreciated and being read.
But I wonder where the line is between sharing of news and prideful crowing?
My husband and I have been reading Proverbs together in the mornings lately, and that book is chockfull of warnings against pride, such as:
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom (11:2).
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (16:18).
One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honour (29:23).
My sister assures me that feeling proud is correct (as in the dictionary definition: “much pleased [exultant] . . . having proper self-respect”). I know that in my heart I don’t feel the sort of pride that elevates my own opinion of myself above others (as in the biblical story of Lucifer); rather, I give the glory to the God who created me and affords me the opportunity to write at this time in my life.
But even if my internal attitude is good, does my broadcasting come across to others as boastful? Maybe it is boastful. As Proverbs says:
Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give (25:14).
These warnings demand self-reflection. My goal is humility, wisdom, lowliness in spirit: How does this interface with my sharing wonderful news that has the ability to cause envy in others? (I know this ability experientially, as nothing can rile up my covetousness like the publishing successes of others!)
How do I avoid becoming a cloud without rain? How do I better give of my gift?
5 responses to “PRIDE”
Soup making is more art than science.
Baking chocolate cupcakes is science, as anyone who’s added a pinch too much soda knows. And of course entire cookbooks have been devoted to soup recipes (take the title of this post, which is the fictional name of a cookbook I refer to in my upcoming novel)–as though the exact ratio of water to bone really makes that much difference.
No, making soup is more a relationship than a religion. You taste your way into a good pot of soup.
So Mom and I put together a batch only partially following the Mennonite cookbook version some of you might know. Extrapolate on this “recipe” based on what’s in your fridge:
GREEN BEAN SOUP
Combine in pot and simmer till meat is tender:
- 1 meaty ham bone, 1-2 pounds (we used a chunk of ham steak and a couple of links of smoked sausage)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 6 cups cold water
Remove meat and strain through cheesecloth (or just a sieve, as we did), returning broth to pot and add:
- 2-3 cups fresh green beans (or yellow–or even the new purple kind), cut up
- 3 carrots, sliced
- 3 medium potatoes, cubed (better to use baby potatoes and don’t cut too small)
- 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns in spice bag (or a good grinding of pepper straight into the pot)
- Salt to taste
Simmer till veggies are tender, correct the seasoning, then add and simmer another half-hour:
- 4 sprigs summer savory (this time we used a handful of fresh dill instead, just added at the end)
Cut meat from bone and return to the soup.
Serve with thick, yummy farmer’s cream or a scoop of sour cream (or both!) and slurp away.