Interview with author Susan Kirkland

What is your motivation for writing?

I needed an outlet for my imaginary friends and my parents didn't believe in therapy.

According to my mother, I told her I was going to do two things in my life. At the time, I was five years old and on that “to-do” list was be a writer and join the Army. I started the quest of writing before fifth-grade. By the time I finished high school, I had thousands of stories – adventures and misadventures about me and my friends. One of my best friends used to call me and beg me to tell her bedtime stories! I think the motivation at the time was I was able to control something, to create new worlds and not be so average or weird or whatever concept I had of myself.

My motivation now is knowing this is what I'm supposed to be doing. For years, I begged God to show me what part of the body I was supposed to be—where my calling was. I've pestered quite a few pastors to help me in this endeavor before I finally accepted that I was called to write fiction. It was hard for me to accept that because, face it, this isn't a standard ministry. It's not children's church, AWANA, Sunday School. It's different. And different is uncomfortable . . .

Mentors and role models. Wow that's tough. I've always loved Pat Conroy's books. I would love to capture the South the way he does; his imagery, though long is as stunning and breathtaking as living in the South. I enjoy John Grisham for his simplicity.

But, as far as role models, mentors, that's really tough, because there are so many. Everyone at the
Lost Genre Guild and the Christian Fiction Writer's critique group has mentored me. I'm just tickled that Donna Sundblad and I get to market Light at the Edge of Darkness together since we live in the same town. I want to be like a sponge and soak up all that she can teach me because she's so successful and so wonderful to be around. A.P. Fuchs has been so generous in sharing what's he's learned about publishing. Dan Weaver made me feel accepted, which is a hard emotion for me to grasp because I'm so used to my imagination and some of the influences separating me from others. Frank Creed has encouraged me in my faith, not just in regards to writing, but all over. And Cyn has been soooooo patient with me. I feel like the new kid on the block, but everyone has been awesome to be around.

Everyone in the
Lost Genre Guild and the CFWCG gets so excited whenever another writer mentions a new project. I've come to these guys with personal situations and they've lifted me and my family up. They are more than mentors in writing. Ok, I'll stop now before "Kum ba ya" starts . . . group hug, anyone?

Why do you write Biblical speculative fiction?

It was sort of accidental. I didn't even know what spec-fic was (please don't kick me out!) but I had been involved in a writer's critique group that
Dan, Andrea, Frank, and several others were in and someone mentioned doing an anthology that had Christian fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. I knew what those were and I had been playing with "Fair Balance" although I never intended to publish it. So I emailed Frank, off-group, because I was a little bit - a lot - shy and embarrassed since I wasn't sure if it was a fit for the anthology. How would they feel about a Goth chick and demons? I was terrified that his email was going to start off with "Are you insane? No, go away, you hethern [sic]."

But he didn't and it was great experience—I've stretched into a genre that I had never considered before and I'm excited. As a result, I have some other horror pieces planned.

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?

It might be cliché, but as the Bible says, we are part of a whole body. Collectively and individually, we each have a role in this body of Christ. Some of us are fingers, toes, tendons, tastebuds, hair. Spleen, anyone?

Some of us are evangelist, some prayer-warriors, some encouragers, Sunday school teachers, and some are called to work in the secular world and reach others with love and acceptance. I believe that writers collectively and individually are not much different. Some are called to write devotionals and Bible studies. Some write books to encourage and help. Some write for entertainment. Some are called to write in the secular world like newspapers.

Some might consider speculative fiction to be the gallbladder or spleen of the body, or even a cancerous tumor. We're not. We're that part of the soul that God created with wonder and awe. Whenever I step outside and see the sky filled with all the stars, some part of my brain forces me to stop and stare and worship. Even when I was running from God, the night sky mesmerized me. I always knew He was there, somewhere. It still takes my breath away with amazement. Spec-fic writers are that part of the brain. We want readers to stop and stare in awe and amazement at what God can do.

I think the conflict arises from whether one can say that speculative fiction is necessary for growth spiritually. Eh, I can't say everyone will grow from it, but people learn in so many different ways. If someone can read "Fair Balance" and see a Biblical concept in practice and it helps them, then, how is that wrong?

And there is a fear people have of those who are different. No one raises eyebrows because someone says they are a preacher or Sunday School teacher, but tell someone you write Christian horror and see what reaction you get ;)

When that happens and I point out that demon possession is very Christian-based, and its consequences are horrific, they usually at least accept the idea that it could be possible. For my fellow writers who write about aliens, my hat's off to you, because, to me, Christian horror is the easiest way to connect the dots. Our fantasy and sci-fi writers are incredible.

What length of fiction do you prefer to write?

I like novel length because it gives me time to develop characters. It's that part of me that never wants the story to end. It's like spending time with old friends. Of course, like with friends, at times I've wanted to strangle them.

What writing techniques work best for you in terms of character, plot, setting development?

I've learned a lot writing my first novel. Character sheets are helpful—you lose credibility if Joe had blue eyes on one page and green on the next. They also helped me see patterns in my names. I like "and" combos in names. Andy Sanders. Mandy, I also have an Avery. It forces you, too, to step out. I had to realize that not everyone in my make-believe world could like Contemporary Christian music, or alternative, or country. Not all men are hunters, soldiers, or cops.

I also like getting the action down first, then put in details. For the short story I'm currently working on the verse "A house divided cannot stand," just vibrated throughout me and is the cornerstone. I don't even have an ending yet, but the theme is there and I have some awesome quotes . . .

Have you had any life experiences that have (positively or negatively) influenced your writing?

I've also shared on the blog that I was plagued by chronic nightmares as a teenager. This, coupled with my hyper imagination made me feel different and isolated. That need to guard myself comes out in my characters. They share some sort of isolation, most of it, like mine, is self-imposed. But God calls them, as He did me, to step out of that shell and know that He's shielding me. I no longer cower behind Him, I know He's protecting me and I can move ahead without fear.

Many say the first novel is more autobiographical and in the case of Higher Honor, it's true. Not all of it is, but enough is to make that statement true. And those experiences really pushed me to write because I get so much from reading, but it seemed the encouragement I needed to be filled with I couldn't find in the Christian market. I'm not saying it's not out there, but the books I was hungry, I couldn't find.

Any advice for new writers in general? Christian writers?

For Christian writers—do whatever you need to stay grounded in your faith. You've been called to write and Satan will try to make you slip. I often feel everything I say or do is under a microscope because of the label "Christian Writer." At the same time, accept the fact you're going to make mistakes. Don't let the mistakes be the wedge that drives you apart from God and His grace, love and mercy. Make them the springboard to bring you closer to Him.

For writers in general—don't wait for the perfect idea, the perfect plot or character. Take even the boring ideas and put something down, because once you put it down and strip that layer off, you don't know what's going to be exposed, what the next idea hiding behind that one might be. And don't be afraid to change things when you can't seem to get over a hurdle.

Higher Honor did not start out as a Christian novel. It was a very dark, violent secular novel when I started it. I couldn't get past page 110 for years. Even after I returned to Christ, HH remained secular and dismal. Finally, in frustration, because I knew it was suppose to be written, I offered it to God and it was basically rewritten from scratch. For years I couldn't move foward, but within a year of making that offering, I had the first draft complete.

When do you write?

Well, since I work for a newspaper, I get quite a bit of writing done between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (it's a weekly, so we keep traditional hours usually), but fiction is a bit trickier. I do some during my lunch break and several nights a week, I'll write after the children are in bed. I have a wonderful husband who gives me the time on the weekends to write as well.

I perfer writing at night. This is probably a remnant from my nightmare days (well, technically nights) when I would stay up all night from fear of falling asleep. I would read and write then until my parents woke up at something weird like 5 a.m. I would sleep from then until time to get up for school, about two hours. No wonder I was strange. Sleep deprivation will cause that.

Sometimes, if I'm trying to catch a certain attitude or feeling, I'll put on a song that captures it to help me focus. For instance, every time I wrote about Ryan in Higher Honor, I had "Dive" by
Steven Curtis Chapman, not only for the words, but the beat just fit Ryan's personality.

Do you do any research for your writing?

Yes. For Fair Balance, I was in close contact with a spritual mentor whose calling is cleansing people from invasive spirits. She's been a mentor and role model for more than 23 years. I picked her brain about demonic possession and visited lots of websites, read some books and watched a few too many scary movies . . .

For Higher Honor, I had to face something far scarier than demons—my past. I revisted North Georgia College and State University several times researching parts of Higher Honor. This was hardest part of the whole book. I had already researched sexual assault, dementia, and other aspects, but calling my alma mater and telling them what I was doing and needed almost scared me into immobility. But I did it and they have been incredible to work with. Two groups especially,
Mountain Order of Colombo and the Aggressors took the time to explain the technical information—like rapelling and recon that I needed and thought I was pretty cool for an old woman! For someone who has always been a few degrees off from cool, it was a great experience.

Who do you think would most likely enjoy your fiction?

I hope someone like me would enjoy it. Those who feel they are slightly out of step with their peers. Those who feel like they are facing a huge challenge and need encouragement. I hope that someone who feels alone in the midst of what they are facing can read my work and know that not only is God there, but maybe someone who has an idea of what they are feeling.

Do your stories/ novels have any common themes or threads? Do you try to provide a message for your readers?

I've noticed that both of my antagonist—Cassidy Sanders in Higher Honor and Celisa Cooper in "Fair Balance" feel alone and isolated. They are guarded and cautious but they learn to step out in faith and be bold, even though what they've been tasked to do may be hard for new Christians, or non-Christians to understand. So I guess the message would be let down your guard and let God use you where He wants you. He's protecting you. You're His and very special to Him, so He will cover you and protect you.

What can you tell us about "Fair Balance" included in Light at the Edge of Darkness?

This one's hard, because "Fair Balance" has a very significant twist to it and I don't want to spoil it. Celisa Cooper has managed to escape from a strict, religious family and wants desparately to save her brother from it as well. But the blood that binds may not be strong enough to convince her brother to join her on the "other side."

As for characters, I have a special place in my hear for FB's E.C. Hayes, though. He's not the main character, but he was one of the first characters I created, when I was 12 years old. I should have been paying attention to the teacher but I was enthralled with this make-believe kid with bleach blond hair and black tips and stunning green eyes. So we've grown up together. He's always been a punk, an outsider, now he's a punk on a mission :)

Susan Kirkland's website
Susan Kirkland on MySpace


Daniel I Weaver said...

Susan, you've summed this up very nicely. Different is uncomfortable... great quote. I think that could be at the very core of the reasoning behind CBA publishers shying away from speculative fiction. It's great that you took that step of faith and submitted for the anthology. I can't wait to read your anthology submission.

God Bless,
Daniel I Weaver

stevedoyle1759 said...

This was an excellent interview, Susan. It's a testament to what God can do when someone shows Him that they have the courage to overcome their own fear and trust Him to handle the outcome. I trust that you and your stories will become an inspiration to others who feel alone.

vbtenery said...


I really enjoyed reading your interview. You were so open and forthright, it seems I known you all my life.

What can you say about a girl who sets life goals at five!

I've truly enjoyed reading Higher Honor. God blesses those who follow his calling.


Melissa Bernard said...

Reading your interview today was exactly the encouragement I needed. I finished my last round of chemo Sunday night and came home from the hospital yesterday. I had a frightening battle with dehydration this moring and I've felt so lost and alone all day. I opened my email and there YOU were, waiting for me. The words recounting your fears and faithfulness encourage me so. I'm so proud of you and I'm so happy to have you touch my life again. I've missed you, girl. You are such an encouragement to me. Can't wait to actually read your work. You are amazing!
All my love,
Melissa Bernard

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

Great interview, Susan. Your forthright honesty is refreshing, and I believe many will respond to your characters who know what it is to be 'different'. I love "Fair Balance" and I'm delighted that it will be appearing in Light at the Edge of Darkness. You have a marvelous gift, Susan! I'm so glad to see you using it to the fullest extent!