Rian: Was there anything that happened in your life to make you decide to become a writer? Or did you just know for as long as you could remember?
Melissa: For a long time, I actually thought I wanted to be a teacher (which is what I am, in my “other life”), but I always loved writing, from about the fifth grade on. I never really thought of it as something you could “be” as an identity until much later, when I started studying literature as an English major. Even then, though, I never really thought that I would ever have people “out there” reading my stuff. It’s a trip!
Rian: I enjoyed the many characters in your book “To Forgive, Divine” – where do you come up with your idea for characters? Are any of them based on people you know, or yourself?
Melissa: Yes and no. I actually did know a young woman when we lived in Alabama who was widowed with two daughters, and I often wondered what it would be like to be in that position. Dr. Wells is kind of a composite of several very good pastors we have been lucky enough to have over the years, but most especially one that we had, again, when we lived in Alabama.
I was often intrigued by the idea that here he was, a regular guy, who often wasn’t ALLOWED to be a regular guy because of his position as a pastor.
And I thought to myself, “What if he were single? How would he ever date someone?” And the writer in me just started playing “What if?” and the story kept unfolding. (It actually started out as a short story!!)
Cheryl is very much based on a best friend, Cheryl, I had in high school, and, I am sorry to say, Preston is based on a guy named Preston that I actually did go out with a couple of times when I was single. What can I say? You kiss a few frogs…
Rian: Have you read other Christian Chick Lit at all? If so, do you like it, and do you have any books you’d recommend?
Melissa: Christian Chick Lit actually wasn’t around when I was writing To Forgive, Divine. There were romances, and Christian romances, but the secular ones, I felt, were too devoid of any moral values, and the Christian romances always seemed so unrealistic or set in the old west or pioneer days–as if Christian morality couldn’t be imagined in a modern setting.
So that’s what I set out to do: write a story about real people, like the real people I knew when I was single, who dated and had jobs and were single parents and still strove to be Christians in a mostly non-Christian world.
I have to say that I enjoyed Lori Wick’s “Sophie’s Heart,” even though I know that’s not Chick Lit. What Sophie goes through to make it in America is quite a story.
Rian: I hear you are in the process of writing/publishing another book. What will it be about?
Melissa: Two of the characters from To Forgive, Divine, Carolyn and Jenny, will have their stories told. No working title yet, but I can tell you that it won’t be a love triangle–it’ll be a love QUADRANGLE! So be on the lookout.
Rian: Where do you think the Christian Chick Lit industry is going? Do you think it will grow? (I hope so!)
Melissa: I hope so, too. I think if writers can keep the stories real, then they’ll be interesting to everybody and they’ll have a market. As with romances, if characters are cookie-cutter or stereotypical, the stories will be boring and the trend will die out. But I think there’s too much real life out there for that to happen. Look at the comic strip “Cathy.” ! It’s been going on for years, and she was like the original “chick.”
Rian: I liked how your book included a wide range of characters that showed a well-rounded look at the Christian life in a small town, including the good and bad. Why did you feel it was necessary to include a character like Clara, who was obviously very hypocritical? Do you think it will turn people away from Christianity?
Melissa: For me, it WAS important to say, “Yes, there are hypocrites in the church.” I think that too often, Christians come off as judgmental and holier-than-thou. I wanted to take a character like that and make her the BAD GUY, because that is so not what Christianity is about. It’s about love and forgiveness and second chances. I wanted people to see that, for the people whose faith was real, they learned from their mistakes and they had genuine love and compassion for those around them.
Rian: What, if anything, made you write this book? Was this a story in your mind that just had to be told, or did you sit down to write a book and just work out the plot details then? If so, how did you come up with the idea for the plot line behind TFD?
Melissa: As I said, I had this idea for a short story…that wouldn’t stay short! After Bonnie and Jeff got “discovered” together in the restaurant, all kinds of possibilities opened up, and it was just too much fun not to follow up on them. By the time I enrolled in the novel-writing class I took at Towson (outside of Baltimore, MD), I had eight chapters written. My instructor said, “If you have eight chapters written, you’re going to finish that novel, young lady!” (She was in her seventies–everybody was “young lady” to her.) And so I decided to finish the novel as a thesis project, thinking I was going to lop off a couple of semesters from my degree program. Little did I know that the novel would blossom into 26 chapters and I would add a year and half to my wait for my master’s! But it got! done, and I’m so glad.
Rian: What do you think of people that put down the chick lit industry in general, if anything? Have you heard anyone putting down Christian chick lit?
Melissa: I think there are elitists who think it’s cool to be “above it all.” In other words, if a trend is popular with a lot of people, then it must, by definition, be blue-collar or, in the case of chick-lit, “un-literary.” But in English classes, we were taught that writing is used to inform, educate AND entertain. And if Chick Lit resonates with women, and apparently it does with a LOT of women, then it is serving one of the purposes of writing. I also think that, by definition, the Chick Lit heroine has finally broken the stereotype of the romance novel heroine–and how can anyone complain about that??
Rian: What is/are your favorite books and/or authors of all time, and why?
Melissa: Hands down, Jane Austen. I just love Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. And if you look carefully, you will see that I stole freely from Ms. Austen for several of my plot devices in To Forgive, Divine!
Rian: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to write a Christian chick lit, or any book in general?
Melissa: If you really want to write in a specific genre, read as many books as you can in that genre so that you can internalize the formula. Then, when you sit down to write your story, ask yourself, “What is my heroine’s problem and why should people care about it?” You have to hook the reader into caring so they’ll want to get to Chapter 2!