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. . .