I am thrilled to have as my virtual guest today, the lovely and gracious Elizabeth Musser – author, missionary, and gentle soul. I met Elizabeth two years ago at a writer’s retreat and knew I had made a lifelong friend. Elizabeth is a native of Atlanta now living in France. Her novels have been acclaimed in the United States and in Europe. The Swan House, set in Atlanta in the early sixties, was named as one of Amazon’s Top Christian Books of the Year (2001).
Today we are celebrating the arrival of her newest book, Words Unspoken. If you want to WIN a copy of the book, just post a reply by Tuesday, May 12. Here she is!
What inspired you to write Words Unspoken?
Initially, I wanted to explore the idea of the voices we hear in our heads and how those voices influence us and our decisions. A major breakthrough in my life as a Christian and as a young woman came when I understood which ‘voice’ to listen to and which ‘voices’ to tune out. Through studying Scripture, I learned how to make a ‘battle plan’ when I was tempted to listen to the wrong voices. When God reveals something life-changing to me, I want others to know about it, so I figured these ideas would eventually turn up in a story.
Also, since my son was learning how to drive and describing his lessons to me (he was in the US, me over here in France), I had the idea of making the main character a young woman who was learning to drive—again. My son told me of taking driving lessons in a little school in Fort Oglethorpe, GA near a military park, and voila!
You have quite a few main characters in this novel—can you tell us about them?
I decided to take seven characters who seem unrelated at the beginning of the novel and let each one tell parts of the story from his or her point of view, all the while having several driving forces that would eventually bring all of these people together.
My characters are a colorful crew, to be sure.
You’ve got Lissa, a bright 19-year-old, competitive with so much going for her whose life has been put on hold because of a tragedy. She deals with panic attacks, and debilitating fear and is often unable to move forward because of the negative voices she hears—‘never good enough’, ‘all your fault’. She deals with false guilt.
Ev is the 65-year-old driving instructor, quite eccentric with plenty of wisdom and several big secrets too. He’s a godly man who realizes that the Lord is putting His finger on an issue in Ev’s life that needs resolution. We all experience this as we grow in Christ—the Lord pointing out something else that we need to deal with. Ev also suffers from a weak heart.
Stella is the mysterious author ‘S.A. Green’. She’s very fun—she gives everyone a hard time and is described by others as ‘batty’, ‘nutty’, having ‘a wicked sense of humor’, ‘eccentric, smart and intimidating.’ I really like this character because of the mystery that surrounds her. I love to add mystery into each of my novels.
Silvano is an Italian jerk, young and determined and full of himself. A name-dropper, an opportunist. But he has his reasons…
Janelle, a missionary in France, has lost a child—a toddler—in a terrible accident and deals with ongoing grief.
Katy Lynn is the snobby socialite from Atlanta. She is out for herself and determined to hold things together on her own strength and keep up appearances. She definitely has an attitude!
And then you have poor Ted, the successful young stock broker who is making big money and living the high life, intent on impressing his wife and giving his family the best Atlanta has to offer… If only he weren’t so greedy…
It’s always challenging to throw a bunch of characters together. They don’t always do what I want. But actually, I love that! It’s like fitting together a big jigsaw puzzle. And my readers tell me that they feel like they’ve lost good friends when they finish my novels.
You often create a strong sense of place in your novels. Is that the case for Words Unspoken?
Definitely. I chose these settings because, as a Southern writer (I write about the South in the US AND in France), I am familiar with these places and I can bring them to life—sometimes a place in my novel almost becomes another character.
For instance, Lookout Mountain overshadows much of the story, literally—it’s where Lissa lives. I chose the mountain because the road up the mountain is very precarious to drive with many hairpin turns as well as amazing views of the valley below, gorgeous colors of the leaves in the fall. All in all it was a good setting for some nerve-rattling driving lessons. Figuratively, the reader feels the wealth, intrigue, danger and regret all tied up in that mountain.
I used many other real places: Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia with its Chickamauga Battlefield Military Park, the setting for one of the worst battles in the Civil War; the well-known tourist attraction of Rock City; the cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia and Montpellier, France.
Not only do you like to have a sense of place, but also time. Can you explain?
I call my writing ‘recent historical inspirational fiction’. That’s a mouthful. Basically, I enjoy fitting my stories into important (although perhaps little-known) moments in the 20th century.
Words Unspoken takes place from late September through late December, 1987. In the background of the novel is the stock market crash of 1987, ‘Black Monday’, which has an effect on several of the characters. One of the most interesting things I encountered as I wrote the novel was how the storyline became so very timely. I thought that most people could relate to the idea of ‘hearing voices’, but what I didn’t expect was that the time period I chose, October 1987, would be so similar to what the US is experiencing now—a stock market crash.
One challenge for me as far as time was concerned is that the story takes place during three months. So I had a lot of main characters pushed into a short timeframe with a very fast plot. I definitely had to keep my calendar and time charts up-to-date. Again, I enjoy making the story fit together, even when it seems impossible. As a novelist, it is fun to have a problem to solve.
What is the underlying theme/message of the book?
As with all of my novels, Words Unspoken has several themes. The first is the question I have already discussed: “whose voice will you listen to?” I examine how negative voices from the characters’ pasts have continued to influence them in their decision-making. As a result, they make poor decisions involving greed, selfishness, a desire to get ahead, keeping up appearances, feelings of failure and never being good enough, depression… Is there a way to quiet the negative voices and hear the truth? What is the truth?
One of the main characters Ev, the driving instructor, is a mature believer and hears the truth. As he strives to help the young girl Lissa to learn to drive again, and overcome panic attacks, he talks to her about a ‘battle plan’. I would love for my readers to consider forming a ‘battle plan’ of their own to help them choose truth and make good decisions.
Another theme is that God can redeem the terrible mistakes of our past. Little by little the reader realizes this about Ev—his life hasn’t been one easy trip. He and his wife have learned through suffering—both from circumstances beyond their control and poor choices they made in the past.
The whole idea of driving lessons is a metaphor for the theme of a girl who is not only learning to drive again, but to LIVE again.
Another theme I examine is what GREED does to people—very timely as we see the state our country is in.
And I examine the question of grieving—how long does it take? Do you ever ‘get over’ losing a loved one?
Finally, I weave throughout the story the idea that life is not random, that what appears to be coincidence may be more than that. There is a God who is in control.
Sounds like you have a lot of things going on in your novel.
True. I often say that I write ‘entertainment with a soul.’ So it’s not just entertainment. If a reader is looking for purely fluff, I don’t think he or she will appreciate my novels. I do like to make my readers think. Yes, I offer a fast-paced plot but my characters also deal with meaty issues. Words Unspoken deals with contemporary problems—greed, depression, the role of our conscience in decision making, monetary failures, financial crisis. But the story isn’t depressing. It’s a fast-paced AND thought-provoking read, interlaced with hope and redemption: God is a God of hope and new beginnings; He does not waste our pain; the best way to move forward in life is with a ‘battle plan’—a plan that prepares one to hold onto God in the midst of life’s difficulties; the Holy Spirit is the best ‘voice’ to listen to. And ‘life is not random’.
I think the message of my books stays with my readers. It is not unusual for me to hear that readers have read my books two or three times and that the characters feel like ‘real’ friends dealing with ‘real’ problems. I do not offer simple answers, and I am not afraid to raise hard questions as I relate the Gospel. I combine colorful characters, an intricate plot, and deep themes, as well as in-depth research and fun historical tidbits thrown in along the way.
Who will want to read this book?
As you can see from the characters, this story has something for everyone, from the high school student to the businessman, the society lady, the full-time Christian worker and the retiree.
How does living in France affect your writing?
As I’ve said, I like to challenge my readers in my stories. I have been challenged in so many ways by living overseas, and I think Americans need to have their eyes opened to different cultures. So some of the issues I raise will hopefully cause my readers to think about their belief systems and what is actually truth. Living in France has definitely broadened me, made me want to communicate the importance of getting outside our comfort zone and getting to know other cultures. In my writing, there are always issues about race and culture.
You have thirty seconds to pitch your book to a potential reader; what would you tell them?
Have you ever been bothered by negative things from your subconscious—you know, those voices from the past that whisper ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you’ll never succeed’, ‘you’re a failure’ or ‘you need more, more, more to be happy’? Well, I’ve written a novel about the lives of seven characters who are motivated by voices from the past. Words Unspoken, which arrives in bookstores in early May, is about a young girl who is trying to learn to drive again after a tragic accident has effectively put her life on hold. You’ll also meet a ‘rogue’ stockbroker, motivated by greed, a mysterious best-selling author who is determined to remain anonymous and a driving instructor on the verge of retirement with plenty of secrets of his own. Come with me to a girls’ school and a military park in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and to beautiful Lookout Mountain in the fall of 1987 where mystery and the effects of Black Monday are awaiting. Words Unspoken promises you the ride of your life. Won’t you join me? Hold on tight!
I’ve put out a video on YouTube to give my wonderful readers a chance to get to know me better and have a peek into some of the places where Words Unspoken takes place. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVAKxLogoDQ
Thanks for being here, Elizabeth. Or should I say, Merci!! If you want to learn more about Elizabeth and her books, check out her website at http://www.elizabethmusser.com/. You can also read an excerpt there of Words Unspoken.