Category: Bethany Pierce

Inspired by Bethany

I admit to being a hard-to-please reader of fiction. I demand a lot of the novelists I read, partly because I can’t and don’t want to separate my novel-reading from my novel-writing. If a writer can’t move me at the writing level, which is different than capturing me at the reading level, I put the book down and move on. You know the saying. Too many books, too little time. I don’t have time nor the appetite for fluff and easy mediocrity.

So you can trust me when I say I loved my friend Bethany Pierce’s newest offering, Amy Inspired. She combined my favorite writing descriptors – subtle and sublime – in a compelling read with an an engaging cast of characters. If you can grab a reader at that secret place beneath the senses, you will walk away with their respect. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men know this dynamic duo of subtle and sublime. The story is the people, not the plot. A good plot is essential to any great story. But if you can throw just about anybody into the plot and make it work, for me, a certain kind of depth will be missing. Amy Inspired is a well-crafted story about people; they move the plot rather than the other way around. It’s my favorite kind of story. Bethany wowed me with her first book, Feeling For Bones, which I also highly recommend.

I’ve invited Bethany to chat here on the Edge this fine Monday morning. (Just wait until you read her answers to my questions!) But first, here’s the story of Amy Inspired in a nutshell: Amy Gallagher is an aspiring writer who, after countless rejections, has settled for a career as an English professor in small-town Ohio just to pay the bills. All her dreams suddenly start to unravel as rejections pile up–both from publishers and her boyfriend. But just as Amy fears her life is stuck in a holding pattern, she meets the mysterious, attractive, and unavailable Eli. She struggles to walk the fine line between friendship and something more with Eli, even as staying true to her faith becomes unexpectedly complicated. When secrets, tragedy, and poor decisions cause rifts in Amy’s relationships, she must come to terms with who she’s become, her unrealized aspirations for her life, and the state of her faith.

And now. . . the interview:

Edgewise: What inspired you to write Amy Inspired? Is any part of Amy’s journey autobiographical?

Bethany: My editor at the time came me to with the idea for a series of books about a college English teacher, a woman in her thirties trying to balance faith and love and work. Every time he broached the topic I stalled. I was halfway through my second year teaching at Miami University of Ohio and had recently promised never to write anything as autobiographical as Feeling for Bones again. But I polled the students I was closest to and surprisingly they not only liked the idea of the English teacher protagonist, they volunteered themselves as characters in her story.

Though I purposefully steered away from putting any of my actual students or friends in the book, there is a sense in which the novel became a direct reflection of my own experience: I shamelessly “borrowed” the look and feel of Miami’s campus as a model for the fictional Copenhagen. This was entirely self-indulgent. I was leaving Miami after seven years as an undergraduate, a graduate student, and then a teacher. As I picked up my life and began moving it across the country, Amy’s world of eccentric academics, small-town walks to the coffee-shop, and amateur poetry reading became a kind of home away from home.

Edgewise: Your cast of supporting characters for Amy’s idealism to rub against is stellar. Where did Eli, Zoe, and the rest come from? Personal experience? Are they versions of you or Amy or someone else?

Bethany: If I were any character in the book I would be Zoë. I sympathize with her compulsions and appreciate her vegetarianism. I love her wardrobe. Amy is more like the neighbor girl I’m fond of but don’t always understand. Maybe writing this book was a way to walk in her shoes.

In retrospect, the characters in this book are really more compilations of the many groups of people I had the privilege of meeting in college as opposed to individuals copied and pasted into fiction. Amy and Zoë’s differences grew from reflections on the meaningful friendships I had in academia – women I lived with, argued with, travelled with – women who provided necessary counterpoints to my own opinions on the nature of worship and the act of art making.

And Eli? Eli was every guy I met in studio who pleasantly baffled me with his energy, his quirkiness, and his depth. He’s the kind of guy I would love to share a lunch table with everyday.

Edgewise: Do you think we all end up inspiring other people along the way?

Bethany: I think we each have enormous potential to either inspire or frustrate other people’s dreams. (My dad used to tell me, “God loves you and everyone has a plan for your life.” ) Ultimately, it’s the people who are busy doing their best for God and for humanity that end up inspiring the rest of us by default. When you’re busy doing what you’ve been given to do to the very best of your ability you can’t help but motivate the people around you. I like what author Anne Lamott says: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

Edgewise: Tell your dad that line made me laugh out loud! And I LOVE that quote by Anne Lamott. How did this book challenge you differently than Feeling For Bones?

Bethany: Great question….I guess revision was the real challenge for Feeling for Bones. The manuscript I gave my editor required an overhaul that only the suspense of the possibility of getting published could generate. For Amy Inspired, on the other hand, the challenge was fitting what I wanted to write about into the genre I’d been assigned as a now branded “Christian writer.”

I’d just finished my master’s in creative writing (and, in retrospect, a boring and pompous thesis). As I started writing Amy I felt pulled between very different audiences: the faceless but very particular CBA market and the professors and creative writing friends who aspired to great literature. The result was a very bipolar writing process, and I was disappointed with the first draft it produced. Eli was nothing more than pretty face; Amy’s problems with Christian attitudes toward sex, eternal life, and evangelism were elided by her mindless commitment to the faith; and the writing itself featured too many didactic selling points of Christianity. Notably, I’d written under the assumption the book would be published under pseudonym.

Thankfully, that version of the book never made it to print. I put the manuscript away, got married, lost my grandmother unexpectedly, and then moved eight hours away from home, all within a span of three months. I landed in the mountains of Virginia as bewildered and wind-slapped (and shocked by the color – blue skies! every day! imagine that!) as Dorothy in Oz. I was tired. I was both incredibly happy and incredibly sad. I went back to the book in my loneliness where writing became, once again, a source of emotional healing as opposed to a means to an end. Instead of trying to fit inside the constructs I’d been given, I tried to marry the strong points of the inspirational and chic lit genres with the things I loved about the books I was reading at the time. Then the mantel “inspirational writer” became a challenge and the writing a pleasure.

Edgewise: Wow. I am feeling inspired myself! I also now sit under perpetual blue skies. What’s next for you?

Bethany: Right now I’m putting pieces together for two upcoming art exhibitions, one in February and the other in March, but I’m anxious to start writing again. I hate to think I’ll have to wait until April. We’ll see. Once the cold weather sets in its hard for me to avoid books and first drafts. I think it’s all the candles. I’ve trained myself to write to the scent of Yankee Sugar Cookie and the snap and crackle of Wood Wick flames. I’m as conditioned as Pavlov’s dog: light a vanilla candlewick and I start looking for my pen and paper. So maybe the holidays will send some inspiration my way.

Edgewise: Bethany, I loved chatting with you! Thanks for coming by. To my readers, go buy her book. As for me, I am headed out to the Yankee candle store in the mall. . .

Echoes of the past . . .

I have always liked the attachment we – collectively, if not individually – have to the past. Even people who don’t like decorating with antiques still seem to have a fascination for things that were created long ago and are still with us. They are like echoes from a world that is like ours, but different.

When I began to plot the story of Lady in Waiting last year, I knew I needed some kind of tangible snippet of the past to unite the two Janes – the one living in current Manhattan and the one who lived as Lady Jane Grey back in the 16th century. I decided on a betrothal ring, a circle of gems on a band gold. And I gave my modern-day Jane a job in an antique store so that there would be a believable environment for her to come across it.
It had to have been hidden – for purposes of the story – but it also had to have been hidden for a reason. (Can’t tell you here what that was since that would be a bit of a spoiler.) Once I had that reason, I toyed with the idea of hiding the ring inside the binding of a very old Book of Common prayer. A pseudo-holy book; a safe place to hide away something precious.The idea seemed to hold water, so off I went with it.

The little book pictured on my blog today is a very old Book of Common Prayer, though not as old as the one in Lady in Waiting. This one was printed in 1847. To my complete joy, I found this on eBay, bid on it and won it. The cool thing is, I will be giving it away in a very cool Facebook event & drawing called Follow the Ring my publisher is putting together. Other things in the winner’s basket include a ring, an old onyx rosary (also found on eBay, will show that to you next week – an onyx rosary shows up in the book, too!), copies of my books, more books from other authors participating in in this “treasure hunt” and other wonderful things. If you are not on Facebook – and I know it’s not for everyone – maybe you could join just for this hunt! It will start in a couple weeks. And it will be pretty easy and fun. You just “follow the ring” from one author’s Facebook page to another for just a week, post as directed, and your name’s in the drawing.

All the details will be posted soon. Just wanted you to see this beautiful little treasure. I kinda hate to part with it. . .
So. stay tuned. . .
On Monday, I will chat about Bethany Pierce’s newest release, Amy Inspired, which I really, really liked.

Have a great weekend.

A richly-tailored debut

I brought home a little treasure from ICRS in the form of a debut novel by Bethany Pierce. Feeling for Bones, pubbed by Moody and just out this spring, is a wonderfully-crafted story of the illusion of control in the life of an anorexic 16-year-old.

Pierce, who teaches English at Miami University, knows her stuff. Her prose is rich with detail, metaphor and unused turns of phrase. Told from the protag’s point-of-view, Feeling for Bones, ushers the reader into the shaky world of the disordered eater; a world where food really has nothing to do with the eater’s troubled soul.

The main character Olivia is deeply likeable, flawed but authentic, and she moves about in a family setting that rings true. Life isn’t always easy, even for a pastor’s family. Maybe especially for a pastor’s family. We all search for ways to manage emotionally what we can’t manage physically. Olivia uses and abuses the exercise of eating, turning it into a strange art form; an expression of what life is like for a girl faced with a major move, the loss of the familiar, the ache of a hurting & demoted pastor-father, the uncertainty of living in a dangerous world, and the prospect of a first romance.

I liked how the story was not about anorexia. It was about a girl who struggles to control her universe and resists surrender to God. The writing is fat with lovely descriptions like this, taken from a scene late in the book when Olivia has at last removed the glossy magazine pages of beautiful, skinny women from her bedroom wall. The magazine pieces lie in shreds on the floor.

Mom appeared in the doorway. I was washing my face.

“Thank you,” she whispered. I looked down. In her hands, she’d gathered a pile of crumpled papers from my floor. White and curled, they blew about in her palms like bits of ash. My little paper kingdoms.”

Very much character-driven, Feeling for Bones is a great pick for those who like Jodi Piccoult, Anita Shreve and Lisa Samson. The pace is measured, very nearly relaxed, but that allows you to enjoy the subtle and lovely artistry in the words.