Interview with Carla Stewart (from 2012)

I originally posted this in the Spring of 2012. What an honor to have had a chance to interview author Carla Stewart!

Carla Stewart’s writing reflects her passion for times gone by as depicted in her first highly-acclaimed novel, Chasing Lilacs, which was a 2011 Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and winner of the 2011 Best Fiction Book for the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. (OWFI). Awards since then include five-time Oklahoma Book Award Finalist, Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award, INSPY finalist, and each of her books has been a Pulpwood Queen Book Club selection.

Carla launched her writing career in 2002 when she earned the coveted honor of being invited to attend Guidepost’s Writers Workshop in Rye, New York. Since then, her articles have appeared in GuidepostsAngels on EarthSaddle Baron, and Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine.

An Oklahoma native and graduate of OU, Carla enjoyed a career in nursing and raising her family. Now that their four sons are grown and they’ve become empty-nesters, she and her husband relish the occasional weekend getaway and delight in the adventures of their seven grandchildren.

Enjoy the book banter…

Denise: You once said, “Community is the best gift you can give yourself. Writing groups, conferences, critique partners – the human interaction keeps the solitary life of writing from feeling like you are alone…. Pay attention to what those who’ve walked before have to offer in craft and networking. For your writing, don’t be afraid of being unique.” You are well known in writing circles and have developed many author and professional friendships. With all these outside voices, how have you managed to cultivate your unique voice?

Carla: Oh my goodness. First, I’d have to say I’m very grateful for those who’ve helped me along on this writing journey. Every writer has a voice, whether they know it or not – it is the unique way you string words together and the tone you bring to the page. It’s your personality on the page, telling stories from your perspective. But the magic really happens when you let the characters’ voices come through. So part of my “voice” is choosing characters who resonate within me and letting them shine. Reading great books feeds my creativity – not trying to be like another author, but to write bigger stories, create more vivid word pictures, and step into uncomfortable waters. Turning off that critical editor in your head helps, too.  🙂

Denise: Your debut novel Chasing Lilacs is full of rich, deeply human characters. Do you have one to whom you feel most attached or one of whom you are most proud as a “person”?

Carla: Slim Wallace was far and away my favorite character. He’d been through a great loss and suffered estrangement from his family, and yet, he reached out to both Cly and Sammie in his own way – playing backgammon with them, not telling them what to do, and being an anchor for them. He’s the sort of person I wish I was. At one of the book clubs I attended, one sweet lady told me at least three times, “I sure did like Slim.” I do, too.

Denise: In Broken Wings you employed an unconventional narrative style, alternating first person story-telling between Mitzi and Brooke.  At the same time, you take your reader on an adventurous, emotional ride originating in 1935 St. Louis and floating beautifully back and forth through time and landing the reader in present day Tulsa. How did you marry this narrative style and this timeline so naturally?

Carla: I was very worried about how I was going to structure this book once I’d been contracted to write it!! I’d read other framed stories (Water for Elephants and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) and loved how they had a story within a story. So that was my goal. I also wanted the historical thread to mirror what was going on in the lives of Mitzi and Brooke (crisis, friendship, complications, climax, etc.). I knew exactly what happened in the past so it was more crafting the contemporary story around that. Once I began writing, the words and chapters fit together perfectly like jigsaw puzzle pieces. That was not ME, but a divine touch. When I was finished, it needed some revision, of course, but I was astounded at the flow of the story and take no credit whatsoever for that.

One quick story about an unplanned character in Broken Wings. Mitzi was arriving at the Care Center one day, and a gentleman opened the door for her. Hadley stepped into the story and said, “Here I am.” I had not planned that and ended up falling in love with him sort of like I did Slim in Chasing Lilacs.

Denise: Your upcoming release Stardust (coming May 15, 2012) promises a story “of courage, forgiveness, and new beginnings.” This seems to be the theme of your novels, yet your first two books tell such different stories. How do you present this heart-of-the-book in a new way in Stardust?

Carla: Setting and era are huge for me – creating a story world so that this particular story could not have taken place anywhere else or at any other time. The bayou setting in Stardust was something new for me, but I made several trips to East Texas and took the riverboat ride down the bayou and asked the tour guide a lot of questions so I could portray an authentic setting. Having a “backdrop” also helps create a fresh story. In Chasing Lilacs, I used the way depressions and mental illness was treated in the fifties. In Broken Wings, the jazz culture of Tulsa. In Stardust, polio plays a big part of the story. Again, a lot of research to get the details right. Last, a good mix of characters. Every character in Stardust is unique and has a role in the story. Stardust was a joy to write from the day I got the idea until the last word was written. I hope readers love it as much as I do.

Denise: Your book covers: classy, clean, beautiful! How much artistic influence do you have on the cover art and overall presentation of your books?

Carla: I’m asked to submit my ideas and covers that I like. Truthfully, though, I’m glad to turn the cover art over to the design people and let them come up with something. So far, they’ve done a fantastic job. I’m in awe of how my books are vastly different and yet the covers have a cohesive feel that represents me and my brand – nostalgic heartfelt fiction. The team at FaithWords is incredible.

Denise: And, finally, what can you share about your current work in progress?

Carla: Sweet Dreams was turned in earlier this week. It’s set in 1962 and has two vastly different settings – an exclusive Southern charm school and an oil tycoon’s ranch – both in Texas. Here’s a short blurb.

Two close-knit cousins struggle to fit in at an exclusive Southern charm school, but when they both fall for the same handsome guy, their love for each other is tested. Patsy Cline sings “Crazy” on the radio while the worlds both inside and outside the halls of the charm school begin to crumble. Past secrets and family lies collide with the changing times. Sweet Dreams has a flawed cast of characters whose dreams have the power to take them to new heights or tear them all apart.

“Joan of Arcadia”

I have professed it repeatedly…I’ll say it many times again…it is such a shame, a creative and spiritual loss to the television viewing masses, that creator and producer Barbara Hall’s “Joan of Arcadia” never made it past season two.

Throughout the series (insert sigh of exasperation over the truncated life of this message-filled show), one of my all-time favorite mother characters Helen Girardi (played by Mary Steenburgen) prays, hopes and emotionally and intellectually struggles with her Faith. During one of her initial trials with her maternal-optimism failing her lonely, aching heart, she walks by and then quickly returns to chat with (interrogate, actually) a Catholic priest, Father Ken Mallory (played by David Burke). Ah, Father Ken…a realistic portrayal of a gentle, knowledgeable, humble, compassionate, Faith-filled, insightful man…a great priest! How refreshing to see a Catholic priest on a TV show depicting a priest (or many priests!) that so many of us know and love in our own real lives.

Watch a few episodes of “Joan of Arcadia” and listen to the love and wisdom of God in Father Ken’s own words. I especially cherish his words to Helen (in the episode “death be not whatever”) when she is confiding in Father Ken that she has been meeting with him behind her husband’s back (Will Girardi, the chief of police and fallen away Catholic, played by Joe Mantegna):

Father Ken: “Helen, I think what you’re touching on here is you should be talking to your husband and you miss being able to do that.”

Helen: “But you don’t understand what kind of job he has, and it’s especially bad right now. I just can’t make it worse for him.”

Father Ken: “I’ve married a lot of people, and I remember the words. You’re depriving him of the privilege of living up to them.”

Helen: “Well…when you put it like that.”

What an affirmation of the holy vocation of marriage!

So, thank you, Barbara Hall for your gift of Joan: the clever and provocative script writing, and the deep, realistic, intriguing characters, such as the beloved Father Ken.

And let’s all remember to pray for vocations and for our priests. We need them…our world needs them!