I need to throw some more conflict at him. I had a writing teacher who taught us, “Whenever things are easy for your character, put him on a thin branch at the top of the tree.” She paused for effect. “And then throw rocks at him.”
Brain Peyton Joyner – 22 August 2017
The Back Flap
Abandoned by his father at age seven, Ben loses his mother to a car accident that same year and becomes his grandparents’ responsibility and their joy.
Handing his grandfather an arrowhead that he finds at his mother’s funeral, Ben sets in motion an agreement between them: Ben gifts his grandfather a stone, and his grandfather gifts him a story. Years later when Mee Maw falls ill, Ben makes yet another deal – this time with God: If Mee Maw recovers, Ben will dedicate himself to the church.These commitments inform the man he will become.
But life has a way of throwing us curve balls, and it throws Ben a doozy; no matter how hard he tries, he can’t pray away the gay. And being gay is in direct conflict with his church’s teachings, a roadblock to his becoming a minister.
A beautifully written and relevant coming-of-age story, The Wisdom of Stones is a tribute to one young man’s heart-wrenching journey towards self-acceptance, to the relationship between a boy and his grandpa, and an exploration of the impact of each generation on the next. A tribute to the courage it takes to define and then make the right choices for ourselves, this novel is destined to become a new Southern classic.
About the book
What is the book about?
Ben, a college senior, promised God and his Mee Maw that he’d be a Southern Baptist preacher, but he can’t pray away the gay. At Mee Maw’s request, he goes to his preacher for advice and starts on the HomoNoMo plan – 7 steps to a cure. But stories he learns from his Grandpa Charlie about an interracial relationship Charlie had in the 1930s teaches Ben to live life by his own rules.
When did you start writing the book?
I came up with the idea for this book at a writing workshop in 2010.
How long did it take you to write it?
I wrote the first draft during the summer of 2010. I worked every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning. As an attorney, my day job involved editing so after completing the first draft, I put the book back on the shelf. I got serious about finishing the novel in November 2015 and did three more substantive drafts before finalizing.
Where did you get the idea from?
At a writing workshop in 2010, we were asked to write about a collection. This image popped into my head of a six-year-old boy searching for stones in the creek on his grandparents’ property. The boy would find a stone and give it to Grandpa in exchange for a story. This stone-for-a-story became the plot device of the novel. The main story line is based on my own experience coming out in my senior year of college, but I amped up the conflict so it’s not memoir.
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
In writing the book, I became more and more intertwined with the main character, and I realized in April 2016 that I was holding him back. Ben wasn’t doing what he needed to do because I didn’t want things to be that hard for him. As writers, we fall in love with our characters and want to protect them, but I’ve learned whenever I start to feel that way, I need to throw some more conflict at him. I had a writing teacher who taught us, “Whenever things are easy for your character, put him on a thin branch at the top of the tree.” She paused for effect. “And then throw rocks at him.”
What came easily?
The Wisdom of Stones has received widespread praise for the strength and authenticity of the Southern voices of Grandpa and Ben. Although Ben is essentially my voice, the voice of the Grandpa character flowed more easily. I based him on my mother’s father, and I could get into his head almost immediately when I was writing.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
I’ve definitely borrowed from real world people. The grandpa character is based on my mother’s father. He was a hobo and boot-legged moonshine during prohibition. He was very religious, but he had a compassion towards others that embodies the best of Christianity. Ben’s girlfriend in the book was originally closer to my real-life girlfriend during college, but I had to change the character. I was making her too nice. I had to let go of wanting to protect my characters. I had to give them flaws.
We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
My junior year of college I took a class in Southern Lit. It was during our one-month winter term, and we read a book every few days. I loved the class so much that (to my professor’s surprise) I asked for additional reading assignments. I’ve always loved Faulkner and Conroy. And my brother was friends with Sue Monk Kidd’s son when we were little so I’ve always felt a special connection to her. Southern authors have influenced me with their language, dialogue and setting. The South has a complicated past, and I love to explore the tension between present and past. Tradition plays a stronger role in the South than in most places, and this creates conflict.
Do you have a target reader?
I have a few people in mind. I’d love for Christians who are struggling to understand homosexuality to pick up the book. And I’d love for people who don’t understand why Christians struggle with accepting the LGBT community to read the book. The best praise I’ve received about the novel comes from these two different sides. You may not agree with the actions of the book’s main characters, but you will definitely understand and respect their motivations for why they do what they do.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
I firmly believe that everything starts with what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.” To paraphrase Hemingway, there are no great writers, only greater REWRITERS. I work with my writing coach to develop the theme of the novel and then do a rough outline of plot points. This gets worked and reworked. I’ll do more research and change the plot several times. But then at some point, I just have to write. And I’ll try to write to those plot points, but I let new characters introduce themselves and decide they want to be an important part of the story. I keep thinking about the ending as I write because I don’t mind a deviation along the journey, but I need a BIG reason to change the destination.
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
I hate outlining. I wish it weren’t necessary. But I’ve come to understand that outlining can save months and months of writing.
Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?
I don’t edit as I go. Editing involves a very different part of your brain, and I find that I need to have full freedom in getting down the initial first draft. If I start editing, then this disrupts my creative flow. I’ll worry more about writing one perfect sentence and then another. And then a perfect paragraph. An hour passes, and I’m on paragraph three. I’ve learned that for any early draft, it doesn’t make sense to polish a scene because you might not even use the scene later. I’ve spent a lot of time editing scenes that weren’t needed, and because I’d spent so much time on them, and the language in that scene was so beautiful, it was WAY harder to kill that darling.
Did you hire a professional editor?
I would recommend that all writers hire professional editors, even if you are taking the traditional publishing route. Don’t rely on your family and friends or read-and-critique group. They will not be honest with you. (And that’s a good thing.) But you need honesty to get a good piece to become great. Professional publishers aren’t willing to invest in good pieces anymore. They’re looking to start with a great one.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
I love EDM podcasts. It has a driving beat, and after listening to the same podcast over and over, I focus just on my work. This repetition also helps me get into the frame of mind for the book. I’ll have a new podcast for each book. It definitely works. I’ll be in public or a club and hear one of the songs on my novel-writing podcast. I’ll immediately start thinking about the book.
Did you submit your work to Agents?
I submitted to one agent. She loved the book but declined representation because she didn’t believe that literature should have sex scenes.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
I want my story to change people’s minds about being gay and Christian. About whether gays can be cured. And learn a little bit about the impossible demand placed on kids questioning their sexuality. I also wanted people who have no understanding of the faith community to see the other side and appreciate that many people who believe that gays can be cured are motivated by LOVE and not hate. In the best-case scenario, going the traditional route would have delayed the publication of the book for another year. I felt the message was too important to wait.
I also had several writer friends who took the traditional route, and they weren’t overjoyed with their experiences. The traditional route did not bring them an audience or give them a leg up in sales. And hearing about their conflicts with their publishers over cover design and copy and edits made me realize that I needed to have full control over these things for this novel. I’ll definitely consider traditional publishing for my next novel, but I don’t think it’s the best path forward for every book.
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
I had a book shepherd who had numerous contacts in the self-publishing world. I hired a professional designer to create the cover and design the interior. She gave me some samples, and I cherry-picked the best elements of each. We worked through several drafts until we came up with the final version. I talked to an agent just this past week about a future project and showed her a copy of The Wisdom of Stones. She was blown away at the quality of the book. She said that it looked as good (or even better) than any traditionally published book. Too often writers spend all of this time developing their story and then skimp on the look of the finished product. I’ve extremely proud of the final design. I could not have done this on my own.
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
I had hired a publicist to work with me on the marketing, but one month after publication, things were not going the way I’d been promised they would. I re-tooled and came up with a detailed marketing plan. I’ve realized that pounding the pavement and making personal connections is the only way to sell books. You have to fight and earn every book sale. I hated it at first, but I’ve come to love it.
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
When the agent had her assistant read my book, he had a lot of notes for each chapter. I took those notes very seriously and did a complete edit of the book. I hired another content editor who gave me more and more feedback. Only when I had the book at a point where I was comfortable, did I decide to go indie publishing. The best advice I could give anyone is to make sure the book is the absolute best it can be and hire professionals along the way from content to copy editors. Also, keep in mind that the Field of Dreams approach doesn’t work. “Build it and they will come” is not an acceptable mantra for selling books. I see too many writing friends who self-publish and then sit back and wonder why people aren’t buying their great book. You may write the best book ever, but you have to work to get an audience for that book.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina, and my Southern roots are an essential element in my writing.
Where do you live now?
I left my job as a corporate attorney in August 2016. My husband and I moved from San Diego to Palm Springs. In order for me to pursue my passion of writing, we had to downsize, and I bought a house cheaper in the desert than the first house I’d bought in San Diego twenty years ago.
What would you like readers to know about you?
I love to engage with readers of my work about the unneeded conflict between the LGBT and Christian community. I’ve had many people come to me, struggling with their sexual orientation and their faith. I’m saddened that some “Christians” think they need to stand between a gay person and the church. When I look at the teachings of Jesus, I don’t see how any church can deny fellowship to LGBT believers. I would call many churches more “Biblian” than Christian.
What are you working on now?
Danh, an Amerasian preacher, travels to Vietnam with his gay half-brother and their father to find Danh’s birth mother. Secrets are revealed, lies are exposed and addictions take over, but along the journey, they each discover the importance of family.
End of Interview: