Interview with author Deborah Cullins Smith

What is your motivation for writing?

My Dad was career Army, and in the mid-sixties, we were stationed in Heidelberg, Germany. I remember Mom and I got sick on the boat crossing, and I didn't get to start school right away when we landed. It was a tough time for me. I was only about 9 or 10 years old, no friends, no English-speaking television, and hadn't learned German at that point. And in 1964, we didn't have internet, computers, or any of the fancy gadgets kids today have! So I played with my Barbie dolls, and I wrote my own stories. Mom gave those back to me a couple of years ago. Pitiful . . . really pitiful. "My Adventures on a Desert Island," "My Adventures with the Pirates," and fully illustrated, too! Except that NO ONE will ever see them!

Anyway, I guess you could say that was the start of my literary career. Once I enrolled in school, I proceeded to shock the librarian of the Post Library by checking out – I kid you not! – 10-12 books every week. I'd leave the library with my arms as far down as they would stretch to hold the biggest book, then the stack reached under my chin! Without television, I began my life-long love of books during those two years in Heidelberg. Since then, I've read thousands – yes, thousands – of books. Mysteries, histories, biographies, fantasy, horror, classics, science fiction, Biblical fiction, anything and everything! The book clubs really love me, because I can't just check them out anymore – I feel the need to own them! My home is crowded with many, many bookcases, all of them loaded down with books. A writer READS!

Right after I got married (1976), I tried one of those writing courses where they promise to help you place your work. BIG waste of money, and left me feeling I was not meant to be a writer. I gave up until around 1987. I went to a Sunday School Convention in Denver, and as I scanned the list of seminars, I kept coming back to this "Writing for Publication" workshop. "NO way, God," I said, "been there, done that, struck OUT." So I chose something else, went to the designated location . . . was greeted by the sign, "Class canceled." I checked the list again. That heavenly highlighter lit up "Writing for Publication." "NO!" I said, and picked another class. You guessed it, "class canceled" note on the door! With a sigh, I said, "Ok, Lord, before you close the entire convention, I'll go already . . ."

Within the next couple of years, I was published in several magazines and Sunday School publications. Poetry was the biggest seller. After all, I lived in one of the most gorgeous states in the Union – Colorado! With the Rockies for a backdrop, and three rambunctious kids to keep my creativity at a peak, I was seeing publication on a regular basis. But I still hadn't found my niche in life, and I knew it.

With a marriage on shaky ground by the middle of the 1990's, I ran into an old friend at a high school reunion. James K. Bowers (if you don't know that name, hang on to your hat, because you will sooner or later!) challenged me to write something for this "project thing" he had going on by internet. He had collected several premium writers from Elfwood, which is the largest sci-fi/fantasy writers & artists website in cyberspace. The first story I wrote was called "The Rise of the New South" and told about a wealthy couple who owned the perfect butler – an android. It was a little clumsy, but I had finally found my niche! I loved the fantasy aspects of a story. And as a big fan of the old "Twilight Zone" episodes, most of my tales have a twist at the end, something my readers never seem to see coming! So Jim continues to mentor me, to edit most of my stories, and thankfully, he's brutally honest. So if it's less than my best, he tells me! Now a good deal of my work straddles the fence between spec fiction and historical fiction.

Is there any writer who has influenced your work more than any other?

Besides Jim Bowers and the Herscher Project? Well, I would have to say that Eugenia Price is probably the author who has motivated me the most. She wrote a marvelous historical novel called Margaret's Story many years ago, (don't ask me the copyright date!) and side by side, she wrote a journal to go with it. The journal was a library book, which I have not been able to find since, but I remember so much of it. Her meticulous details were amazing. The focal characters were a real family from St. Simons Island, so she was bound by historical data, like birthdates and death dates. I remember this one segment in her journal. She told how she'd written this beautiful piece about Margaret diapering one of her babies, pulling the soft fabric around his little legs and fastening the diaper pins. Then it occurred to her to wonder if they had diaper pins then! She checked with her local librarian/historian source. Diaper pins were invented two years AFTER this child was born! Now her readers would have never known the difference. I mean, two years??? Do you usually check those little details? But Miss Price asked the librarian how they would have fastened diapers without pins, which involved knotting the ends, and she rewrote the section! That impressed me. I love historical stories, but I have taken my cue from Eugenia Price, and I spend more time in research as a result. If something catches my fancy, my bookshelves fill at an alarming rate!

And another big influence was writer Ruth Vaughn Kaul. I met her at that same Sunday School Convention, and we've corresponded ever since. Ruth believed in me when few others did, and she encouraged me at a time in my life when I had hit an emotional rock bottom. Ruth has written several books, but my favorites are Write to Discover Yourself (my autographed copy!) and Letters Dropt from God.

Why do you write Biblical speculative fiction?
I'd love to tell you that I had this thunder bolt calling, but I have to admit that I more or less fell into the genre! As I said, Jim Bowers got me into sci-fi/fantasy. But I found myself coming up with angels and/or demons more and more! Now most of my stories have some basis for spiritual warfare, or at the very least, they are stories of morality. Some of my tales are darker than I set out to make them, but this world can be a dark place, and not all stories are "happily ever after." I usually let the characters go where they want to go with just a hint of guidance from the author. And often, I'm more surprised than anyone where that happens to lead!

What length of fiction do you prefer to write?
I think I've become too comfortable with the novella range. I tend to get too long winded to keep it down to short story range, yet not quite long enough for a novel! But I've graduated to this length from poetry and short stories, so I'm determined to make 2007 my year for a novel-length story. Watch for it!

What writing techniques work best for you?
I start with a special notebook for each specific project. If there is research indicated, all the notes go in that specific book for easy access, as do interviews, or notes from DVD extras. Those are amazing sources! You can get all kinds of details from historians in those extra features if you're willing to pay a couple extra bucks for the special edition. I will add, though, that I double-check those sources with textbooks.

Then I map out a general idea of where I intend the story to go. That's not always where it winds up, but at least I have a basic idea. Next I briefly sketch the character's main features, any particular traits I plan to portray, and their relationships with those around them. I don't usually plan more than the major 5 or 6 characters. Anything else is dealt with in abbreviated notes, but also kept in that one notebook. My problem at this point is not writing fast enough to keep up with the ideas! I think I have about 10 notebooks and keeping them straight can be a full-time occupation all by itself!

Have you had any life experiences that have influenced your writing?
Of course. We all have. Every experience becomes fodder for your writing. I've been through childbirth, miscarriage, divorce, death of loved ones, helping my daughters give birth, a broken heart. I've moved half way around the world and back between childhood with a career Army Dad and adulthood with a career Air Force husband. A few months ago, a writer friend asked me to take a look at the first couple chapters of a novel he was toying with. It took place in Anchorage, Alaska and the bayou of Louisiana, and involved police and forensics. I've lived in both places (he hadn't) and my ex-husband was in law enforcement! I was a perfect fit for his edits. And of course, my own characters tend to exhibit some of my fears, dreams, inadequacies, and strengths. I think that happens to most writers. Our personalities leak into our characters. On the other hand, sometimes they become all we wish we could be and aren't. The novel I'm currently working on is about a woman who must confront her memories of 1969, when she ran away with her boyfriend to join the counterculture. But even in the midst of all the drugs, she never used. It scared her too badly. That was me. I was terrified of drugs. I didn't run away from home – that has been 100% research, research, and more research. But there is a large part of me that empathizes with my character. Yes, the poor girl has inherited all my fears . . . The things we writers do to our character!

By contrast, I am collaborating on a novel with Jim Bowers and H. Lynn Rummel called The Song of the Grey Lady. We've written a variety of characters for this piece, but concentrated on one central character each. Mine is an herbalist called Morianne. Somehow I think she's everything I want to be but am not. She's brave and bold, a little scarred by the losses in her life, but willing to step out and help others even when her help isn't appreciated. I like that about her!

Any advice for new writers in general?
Read, read, read, and read some more. We learn best by what we take in. My style is my own, but it comes from the influence of many, many excellent writers. People like Eugenia Price, Ruth Vaughn, Francine Rivers, Chris A. Jackson, Kathy Reichs, Jeffrey Deaver, Steven Alten, Bernard Cornwell, Alison Weirs, Brock and Bodie Thoene . . . the list is endless. Reading teaches you how to form your own thoughts into cohesive ideas.

Once you have some stories or poetry, articles, fiction, non-fiction, whatever you are feeling strongly about writing, get a good Writer's Market and begin researching. Then start sending your work out. One thing's for sure: it won't get published if it never leaves your desk.

Most importantly, get involved with a local writers' group, or an internet group, preferably one you know is reputable. But be careful not to get so over-involved that you wind up doing nothing but answering email! That's an easy trap to fall into. You start with one group, then another, and soon, you belong to 15 groups and your creativity is going into emails and debates instead of into your own novel. (Yes, this is my life right now!) Keep the traffic manageable. Networking is great – and necessary – but don't forget to write!

Do you have a specific time and place to write?
Truthfully, my best work is done late at night (fewer interruptions) either on my laptop or handwritten in a notebook. Then I hone the script when I key it in. I also try to take a loose-leaf notebook with me to doctor appointments, on long trips in the car, or any place I am going to have to sit and wait! My scribble is generally unreadable to anyone else, but I can decipher it well enough when I'm back home later.

As to place, well . . . I write anywhere and everywhere! For some reason, I have a harder time writing these days when I'm home. Seems like I get easily distracted by a messy desk, email, or the television. But I'm working on that!

Do you do any research for your writing?
Oh, YES! I've set many of my stories in the medieval era, and I have volumes and volumes of material to draw from, including historical clothing, battle techniques, and general history books. I've also got an idea brewing for at least one novel on pirates, so I've invested in about a dozen research books on the subject, from ships to lifestyles to weapons, including many of the world's most famous pirates!

My current novel The Last of the Long Haired Hippies required 3 or 4 books on the counterculture of the 1960-70's so I could make sure I kept my facts straight. There is one particular scene involving Woodstock. I made sure my details were as accurate as I could possibly make them without having been there myself. The beauty is in those little things. Otherwise, my credibility goes out the window before I'm even off the ground.

Do your stories/novels have any common themes or threads? And do you try to provide a message for your readers?
Like I said earlier, many of my stories involve angels and/or demons or spiritual warfare. And I believe that message is clear: Christians have nothing to fear from demons, but we should never underestimate their influence either. It IS a war, but it's one we'll win if we hold on to Jesus' hand.

What can you tell us about your stories included in Light at the Edge of Darkness?
I have three stories coming out in this collection. "The Rider" tells a unique tale! Few spec fic writers tackle a western, but I got adventurous and tried it. Alice Henderson is a preacher's daughter, traveling by stagecoach on the Santa Fe Trail to join her father in his ministry to the Indians in New Mexico. Along the trail, the stagecoach is attacked and Alice is forced to flee across dangerous territory with the only other survivor, a young man named Buddy Edgerton. But this journey takes many unexpected twists and turns, as Alice's faith hangs in the balance.

Then there is "Fumbleblot's Task." This is one of my favorites! Gretchen Hobson is an executive in a publishing house, and although she is a Christian, she still harbors a wide variety of fears in her young heart. Satan sends one of his minions, Fumbleblot, to corrupt those fears and destroy Gretchen's faith. Will he succeed?

Lastly, "Allison" is a look at a child who longs for the mother she's never had a chance to know. She's been praying for a long time that God would open the door for her to meet her mother. At last, He has. But will her mother love and accept her as she is? This story holds a special place in my heart, but I won't spoil the surprise by telling why!

The Christian community has varying opinions on the appropriateness of speculative fiction. Can you explain your take on the compatability between speculative fiction and your Christian worldview?

There are many Christians who don't believe spec fic has a place in our world of faith, but I couldn't disagree more. The realms of angels and demons are very real, and we should be challenged by the revelations they represent. Roger Elwood and Frank Peretti opened those doors for the rest of us, and I would hope that this new influx of Christian writers will be able to pick up the gauntlet. If readers cannot get speculative fiction from us, they'll go to those who glorify the demonic and the "dark arts." I believe it's our responsibility to fill the gap and represent Christ, to Whom we owe our very lives. I want readers to be drawn to the Lord, not torn away from His love by mystics or charlatans. Hopefully, our work in the Lost Genre Guild will pave the way for future generations of writers in the wonderful world of Christian speculative fiction.

Postscript from publisher Cynthia MacKinnon of The Writers Cafe Press:

I just received an email this evening from the associate editor of Yellow30 Sci-Fi one of the many reviewers of Light at the Edge of Darkness. In this email, he spoke of how much he enjoyed reading the anthology and then made a special mention that I would like to share: ". . . I found Deborah Cullins-Smith a wonderful author."


chrisd said...

Excellent interview! So often God puts a myriad of experiences in our lives that He can be glorified in them. Deb is no exception.

Great answers--never knew Deb was such a reader!

kc said...

Thanks for sharing, Deb. I'm reading the LGG anthology for review right now and I really enjoyed "Allison". What a pleasant surprise!

stevedoyle1759 said...

Excellent interview, Deb. I love the part about diaper pins, I would have changed it too. I recently ran into the same sort of problem with one of my characters who died too early. I need him around for one more year, but although he probably would have liked to oblige, it didn't happen that way, so I've had to rewrite his scenes. Anyway, again, I enjoyed reading your answers and kudos to you on that last part.


Deborah Cullins Smith said...

Chris, thank you. A reader?? If only you could see my poor house -- overrun as it is by my passion for books.... You know the old saying: It would run away if it could get off the ground? That describes my home!

Karri, thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed Allison. My daughter would be pleased. Enjoy your journey! This is such a fabulous group of authors. They ALL brought marvelous creativity to the project.

Steve, I had to laugh when I read your comment! Ah, yes.... the perils of writing historical fiction! I still owe you comments on the Hammatt family saga, my friend. You are such a man of honor, I KNOW you would have changed the scenes in the interests of truth. God bless you as you continue to bring history to life. And thank you for the kudos! *smile* Sure made my day -- no, my WEEK -- too!


Andrea Graham said...

Congrats, Deb.

I used to be a huge book worm. Now I have something resembling a life, though, and don't have as much time for it.

I would have changed it, too, but that's why I don't write historical fiction, research of that nature is not the fun part of writing :) I'd much prefer to invent my own wheel than look up the schematics for someone else's, if you know what I mean.

Andrea Graham

p.s. why the heck won't it let me log in or sign this?

Daniel I Weaver said...

Army brat...yup, that explains EVERYTHING! LOL. Just kidding.

This is a very informative interview, Deb. It's so nice to learn more about the writers in this anthology. The meticulous deatil you've poured into your research does pay off and I can't wait to read your final anthology submissions.

And kudos on the reviewer praise so far.

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

Daniel, I LAUGHED and laughed when I read your comment! :D Yeah, Army brat and Officer's wife.... THAT'S a deadly combination!

(and by the way, thank you! Yes, I'm overwhelmed!)

Andrea, I used to have a life, too. ;) Then I got injured on my last job. My life sort of went out the window. But the inability to DO has created the outlet for me to write, so I won't complain too loudly. Enjoy "having a life" while you can, sweetie! It goes by really fast.

I understand your point --- and you create WONDERFULLY detailed worlds all your own! But thankfully that's one of the wonderful things about writers: some like the research and others hate it. Guess this group will leave the researching to Steve Doyle and me! *heehee* We've got big shoulders, don't we, Steve?


Malin Larsson said...

So many things I did not know about you! Thank you for sending me the link - I loved reading this! How cool - I know an author... It has never occured to me before! :-D

Good luck with the novels and such - be sure to tell me more about them!

Andrea Graham said...

It's just a valid to use a pre-made schematic to build a wheel, er story world, as to create your own. Each tact has it's pluses and challenges, and on that I happily say to each his own :)

In terms of your injuries, it sounds like you're having to come to terms with the promise God works all things for good to those who love him.

Jamie said...

Great interview, Deb. I couldn't be prouder of one of our founding members. You really make the world a bright, better, and more writerly place. God bless you!

Deb Turpin said...

Incredible interview, Deb.
I learned a thing or two as well. *smile*
I certainly wish you luck with your novel. I had no idea that you had been published so extensely in the past. (Good job!)
I find your writing very riveting - it always pulls me in and I am almost always surprised at the endings.

Lydia Daffenberg said...

Neato. I learned a lot about you through this interview. Do you speak German at all?

I'll definitely have to give Light at the Edge of Darkness, and your story in it, a read!