Every now and then I will read a book for endorsement by a new author that really knocks my socks off. Today on the Edge it is my pleasure to welcome Carla Stewart, a novelist whose debut book, Chasing Lilacs, sent me searching for toe coverage. If you had Superman vision, you would see that my endorsement of this lyrically written book is floating in the clouds on the front cover – high in the sky where there are no socks. I wasn’t the only who loved this book. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review.

Here is the storyline in a nutshell: Elvis is on the radio and summer is in the air. Life in the small Texas community of Graham Camp should be simple and carefree. But not for Sammie Tucker. Sammie has plenty of questions about her mother’s “nerve” problems. About shock treatments. About whether her mother loves her. As her life careens out of control, Sammie has to choose who to trust with her deepest fears: Her best friend who has an opinion about everything, the mysterious boy from California whose own troubles plague him, or her round-faced neighbor with gentle advice and strong shoulders to cry on. Then there’s the elderly widower who seems nice but has his own dark past. Trusting is one thing, but accepting the truth may be the hardest thing Sammie has ever done.

Edgewise: Where did the idea for Chasing Lilacs come from?

Carla: It sprang from childhood curiosity—the occasional whisper about someone who’d had a nervous breakdown or shock treatments. The term “nerve problems” frequently cropped up with no explanation of what that meant. Not only were these taboo topics for conversation in the 1950s, I later learned that the ailments themselves were often misunderstood and not always treated properly. As a writer, I wanted to explore what it might have been like for an adolescent girl from that era to have a mother with these problems.

I also wanted to write about the place I grew up—a close-knit petroleum camp in Texas—so I used that as the setting and changed it up. Remembering the carefree days of summer and the spirit of community that we had was such a joy and I wanted to share that with readers.

Edgewise: Is there significance for you personally for the lilacs motif? Could the story just have easily been Chasing Peonies?

I didn’t start out with the lilac motif. I actually called the story A Dandelion Day, but when the mom kept taking lilac baths and loved the scent of lilacs, it became a metaphor for her, which the very smart people at FaithWords picked up on. I wish I could take the credit. Once we went with Chasing Lilacs, I only had to make a couple of tweaks to bring the theme out a little more. There is something about lilacs, though, that is reminiscent and lovely. Peonies, I’m sure, have their admirers, but they just don’t carry the same wistful feel, do they?

Edgewise: What did you learn about grief and loss while writing this book that you didn’t know before?

Carla: I thought at the outset that I would have clearly delineated phases of grief like you learn about in the books (and which mistakenly I thought I knew all about). I didn’t want it to be clinical, though. As the story unfolded, I struggled with Rita (the mom), trying to determine if she would choose to endure a lifetime of unresolved grief or choose to take her own life. I felt she was, in fact, a victim of circumstance, but I also wanted to show God’s grace and power in being able to stop the cycle by sending people to comfort and guide young Sammie so she didn’t fall victim herself. Putting myself in their skin was uncomfortable, but taught me to be true to the story.

Edgewise: Did any of the characters end up surprising you? The story evolve in ways you did not expect?

Carla: Slim Wallace ended up being a bigger character than I first intended. He had the seasoned wisdom and ability to see the heart of these young kids, and I loved writing his scenes. He became my favorite character.

The garage took on a much larger role than I had originally intended, but a very wise editor who read an early draft suggested I had missed a great opportunity for Sammie to have a fear of the garage. When I began to build that thread, the story took a sharp right turn. All the elements were there; I just had to make the most of them.

Edgewise: Some reviewers have said your book has a Young Adult feel to it but I think that designation sells it a bit short. Were you writing to a YA audience? Am I the naïve one here? Barbara Ki
ngsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has scads of its pages written by young protagonists and I don’t think of it as a YA novel. What are your thoughts?

Funny that you would mention The Poisonwood Bible because I read that about the time I started writing this manuscript and knew that children in stories definitely had a place for adult audiences. I was the naïve one, though, and listened to people who said it must be a YA story if the protagonist was a child. I followed that vein for a while, but in the end, I wrote it to an adult audience, thinking that Baby Boomers would be the primary readers. I still think that, although high school libraries are buying it and a number of young readers have loved it even though they know nothing of the era. I hope the universal themes of depression and dealing with difficult people does span both audiences.

I am always tickled, though, when people tell me they enjoyed the nostalgic parts for that is where my heart truly is as an author.

Edgewise: Chasing Lilacs got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Describe the moment you learned of it. How do you feel about that moment now?

Carla: A couple of reviews came out before the Publishers Weekly one, and it fascinated my husband, so every morning when he got to his office, he did a Google search. He was the one who found it and called me. He knew before my publisher or publicist! I could barely talk for shaking, and bless his heart, Max offered to come home if I needed him. I told him I would live, but it was a thrill then and still is. However, I’m worried about setting the bar too high. What if they pan the next book? Will I crawl under the sofa and never write again? I’m trying to brace myself for that. One review does not a writer make.

Edgewise: What’s next on the horizon for you?

I have a second book coming out in 2011, probably in the summer. Broken Wings is set in current day Tulsa. There’s a strong nostalgic thread about the jazz history of Tulsa, but the contemporary part of the story is about two women who become unlikely friends and go through painful transitions together. There are weighty subjects in this book as well, but once again, I’ve loved weaving a nostalgic timeline into the story. I’m very excited about this book and can hardly wait to share it with the world.

Thank you, Susan, for having me and being such an encouragement to me. When I grow up, I want to write books like yours. You’re the best!

Edgewise: Nice to have you here of course. And hey, thanks for the affirmation. I may not deserve it, but it sure feels good.

On Monday, Edglings, my thoughts on The Swan Thieves. . .

Author: Susan

This post has 3 Comments

  1. Myra Johnson on June 25, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Lovely to read even more about my good friend Carla and all that went into this wonderful book! What an exciting time for you, and well deserved honors!

  2. carla stewart on June 25, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    Thanks, Myra! And wouldn't it be nice to be with Sooz on the beach in So-Cal instead of here where the heat and humidity have us by the throat?

    Thanks, Susan, for having me. You are the best!

  3. Mocha with Linda on June 26, 2010 at 3:22 am

    What a great interview. I loved this book!

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