Sibella Giorello grew up in Alaska and majored in geology at Mt. Holyoke College. After riding a motorcycle across the country, she worked as a features writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her stories have won state and national awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. She now lives in Washington State with her husband and sons. Sibella’s novel, The Stones Cry Out won the Christy Award as the best first novel of 2007 while The River Runs Dry continues the saga of Special Agent Raleigh Harmon.
Tim George: Here’s a fun thing to get started. 36” annual rainfall … 69” annual rainfall, match the amounts with the city (Pensacola or Seattle).
Sibella Giorello: I’m a writer; I can’t do math. But you’re probably proving it rains as much, or more, in Pensacola than in Seattle. I’m not surprised. It rains more in a lot of places, but Seattle’s rain is an unceasing spittle. It comes misting out of the sky in late October and doesn’t stop until March. By that time, when you see the sun, you start to cry. I’m not complaining, however. This weather builds readers — or alcoholics. It’s the kind of weather for thinking and ruminating. This is part of my amateur anthropological theory: weather helped create the greatest literature in the world from the Irish, the English and the Scots. Weather, and strong tea.
Tim: I just finished reading and reviewing The River Runs Dry and look forward to spending some time with my ARC of The Clouds Roll Away. Tells us a little about Raleigh Harmon and how she came to life in your mind as a writer.
Sibella: Thanks for your great review of "The Rivers Run Dry." It was lovely. Now I must purge it from my memory. Praise is like gum — taste and chew but don’t swallow. Too much work ahead.
But back to Raleigh Harmon. When I was a reporter on a daily newspaper in Richmond, I would walk to work, always passing this certain old house on Monument Avenue. Gorgeous mansion, gone to seed. I wondered who lived in it. That’s when Raleigh showed up. Scientist, southerner, grieving daughter. She appeared in some short stories that went directly to my desk drawer and later, when I was home with young kids, writing a mystery while they napped, Raleigh kept me company during those wonder-filled yet labor-intensive infant and toddler years. And she continues to fascinate me, getting herself into these law enforcement quandries and spiritual predicaments.
Tim: You talk about the label of “Christian Fiction” in some of your interviews and its inherent dangers. At the same time, you mention on your web site how a New York Agent wanted nothing to do with the religious elements of your novel. What is the answer to this seeming Catch22?
Sibella: You’re right: it’s kind of Catch-22. I don’t want to deny my faith, but I don’t like piety. Among the reasons I started writing this mystery series was my annoyance with cultural depictions of Christians — even from the home team. Secular fiction paints Christians as villainous fools, but Christian fiction has been guilty of portraying a world that doesn’t match reality. It’s some spiffed-up reality that doesn’t even match Jesus, who dove into the thick of the worst, never prettying up appearances.
Tim: So what’s the answer to the Catch-22?
Sibella: I just told you I don’t do math. And I don’t. But I play a mathematician on TV….
Seriously, math offers some great abstract concepts that reveal the universe. Take fractions. The rule is, you can’t add two fractions together unless they have the same denominator. For instance, an equation that reads: "1/4 plus 1/6 equals…." won’t work. The fractions need equal denominators to combine. In this case, "3/12 plus 2/12 equals…" Still with me? I’m saying this because the math rule works for people. We can only be drawn together by our common denominators. Human beings share emotions of love, hate, jealousy, envy, a respect for sacrifice.
The truly great writers who were believers, like Charles Dickens and Flannery O’Connor, didn’t write explicitly "Christian" literature. They didn’t see the world in terms of "us and them." They wrote stories that brought fractional worlds together, forming a complete picture of life. As believers, they also loved their characters as themselves. Even the bad guys. You can feel that when you read their work.
So the real answer to this Catch-22 is, instead of worrying about whether we’re writing "Christian fiction," we should work at being authentic Christians who write whatever God puts on our hearts. And let it fall where it falls. The rest is just noise.
Tim: So then, perhaps the answer is whatever house is willing to publish the story God has put in our hearts determines how that story is labeled. Randy Springer once told me, “The God of the pen is the also God of the publisher.”
Sibella: I like that quote. It reminds us that God is sovereign. But the other problem with the "Christian fiction" label is that it marginalizes books. Imagine if we could only find Dickens and O’Connor and Tolkien in the "Christian fiction" section. Suppose Dickens was a new authors, writing today. "A Christmas Carol" might get shelved way in the back at Borders. Some amazing writers are working today in "Christian fiction" but that silly label keeps their books hemmed in, never finding their full audience. I feel this way about labels like "African-American" or "Chick Lit," too. Some of it goes back to my fractions analogy. We’re dividing into lonely groups, instead of uniting under good stories.
Tim: Born in Alaska, found Jesus in Virginia, and now living Seattle. How have you varied experiences prepared you to be the writer you are?
Sibella: Writers are called to observe, which means we’re perpetual outsiders to a certain extent. God moved me around a lot, constantly forcing me to look, listen and evaluate a wide range of places and people. That was a terrific writer’s workshop. But these days I’m like the spider in Charlotte’s Web, staying in one place and watching everybody else move around.
Tim: Your writing combines a unique mix of the hard-nosed FBI world and nearly poetic descriptions and prose. Where does that come from?
Sibella: Interesting observation. I guess it comes down to Raleigh Harmon. She’s a scientist, and a Christian. She’s a young woman with a bright future, and she’s suffering deep pain. FBI agent in a gritty environment, who can never show the heart that breaks daily. Opposites complete this girl, and I guess that’s what comes out in the language.
Tim: It’s kind of you to give Raleigh all of the credit but I think the writer has something to do with that as well. In these days of minimalist sentences it’s nice to see writer’s who still know how to write with style and depth. Personally, I place you and Athol Dickson at the top of the class in this regards. Try and enjoy that piece of gum for a moment before spitting it out J
Sibella: You got a point — and I am laughing. Maybe having written for newspapers for more than a decade, I’ve grown weary of the simple declarative sentence. However, I’m serious when I say Raleigh is the one drawing that language out. Yes, I enjoy poetry. in small doses, but If her mother were the lead character, these books might read like Revelation. Or maybe they’d be written in tongues! Imagine finding a publisher for that . . .
Tim: One thing that has impressed me in every interview I’ve read about you is your love for the Bible. How does that love affair with God’s Word prepare you for the day and for writing?
Sibella:As somebody who grew up Jewish and Catholic with a lot of secularists around the Thanksgiving table (talk about food fights), it was a long time before I understood how much God wanted a close relationship with his children. And since I’m human, I still forget that. The worldly idea is that God’s busy. He doesn’t have time for our concerns, our worries, our anxieties. That’s a lie. The truth is, He’s listening. And He’s ready to help — provided we quit trying to do things our way. When I read the Bible, I sense Him tilling the soil for other words. When I read the Bible, I remember who God is.
Tim: Without giving away too much, tell us what’s ahead for Raleigh Harmon in your next installment of her story, The Clouds Roll Away. Will there be more of Raleigh after that?
Sibella: "The Clouds Roll Away" goes deeper into Raleigh’s personal life than the two previous books. She returns home from her stint in Seattle, and like many people who leave their hometowns, she experiences a jarring sense of "otherness." It’s still her hometown, but she’s seeing things differently. And, of course, she’s got a murky case to solve, with clues buried deep in the soil.
There are two more Raleigh Harmon books planned. I’m currently writing the fourth installment, for 2011, "The Mountains Bow Down." The fifth book, as-yet untitled, is being sketched out now, but already I see the necessity for some tough FBI interviews.God bless those good souls in the Bureau.They put their lives on the line and get mocked by the media for it.
Tim: There a number of aspiring writers who read these interviews. Aside from the usual to-do list, would you share a personal word to your fellow soldiers of the pen (or keyboard)?
Sibella: Your battle analogy is right on. I always want to tell fellow writers: "Lock and load!"
All the junk that’s supposedly keeping you from writing will always be there — always. In fact, once you get published, the challenges only grow. So if you want to write, write. Ignore that voice whispering in your ear, the one that insists ten or twenty times a day that you should just quit. Don’t quit. Fight back. FIGHT BACK.And when you need to call in reinforcements, read James Scott Bell’s "The War of Art for Writers." You’ll see just how clearly the battle lines are drawn for us foot soldiers at the keyboard. Semper Fi, scribes. Semper Fi.
Tim: My thanks to Sibella Giorello for her graciousness. Keep locking and loading Sibella … and chew that gum at least for a few more minutes.
This entry was posted on Friday, December 4th, 2009 at 1:42 pm and is filed under Interviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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