Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fiction Writer – True Believer; a conversation with suspense writer Terri Blackstock

Fiction Writer – True Believer

Take a heaping dose of the ability to twist a tale of intrigue and suspense, infuse it with the Gospel and cram it into one sweet, petite frame. That’s Terri Blackstock: part Novel-Writing-Powerhouse, all Dedicated Believer. Terri’s no stranger to the realities of living out authentic faith in a fallen world, but she’s learned the art of drawing on her own experiences to connect real people with a real Jesus. I chatted with her recently about all-things-Terri.

JOHN: From your bio I know that you grew up in a Christian home and eventually started writing romance novels. How did you get into that genre, and what eventually led to your transition into writing suspense?

Terri Blackstock: I became a Christian at age 14 and walked with Christ through my teen years. But when I was in my early 20s I started writing and was really trying to break into the publishing market. At the time, the market was really opening up for romance novels. I told myself going in that I would not write anything that would hurt my Christian conscience – I would write clean love stories. But what happened was that those stories didn’t sell. So eventually in order to sell, I compromised and began writing more and more stuff I had said I would never write. Finally over 13 years and (I think) 32 titles, I came to a place where I was spiritually bankrupt. I was very miserable and almost hoping that the publisher wouldn’t buy my next book (laughs) because I just felt this void. I knew that I wasn’t walking with Christ because what I was doing was pulling me away from Him and pulling other people away because I was creating stumbling blocks for them. I came to a place when I started praying about that and over a number of weeks and months I just felt very convicted to give this up. There was one day when I got down on my knees, repented of what I was writing and asked God to help me to never write anything else that didn’t glorify Him. So from that moment on I have been writing books with a Christian message and, I believe, using my gifts the way God intended me to use them in the first place.

JOHN: So did you walk away from romance at that point?

Terri: I did. I had some outstanding contracts I had to buy back – but that was a problem because I didn’t have the money at the time to pay the publishers back, but it turned out that they owed me more than I owed them, so it all worked out beautifully! It was almost like the moment that I made the decision and told God that I was going to surrender this last aspect of my life to Him, it’s as if He took me by the hand and led me the rest of the way, because doors started opening up into the Christian market. At that time I didn’t know anything about the Christian market, but what I did know was that I was tired of writing romance. I just wanted a clean break from that, so I didn’t want to write Christian romance. I was reading mostly suspense novels at the time so I thought, why don’t I try to write suspense and just see if the Christian readers like it? And they did. So Zondervan gave me a four book contract before I knew it and I’ve been writing for them ever since.

JOHN: So you wrote over 30 romance novels, wow. How many Christian novels have you written?

Terri: I think I’ve written about 40. I’m [somewhere] over 70 – sometimes I lose count because I have taken some of those earlier books and rewritten them, so I never know whether to count them a second time or not. I did extensive rewriting on those. Any of the books that you see from me that are romance novels; those are usually rewritten from my earlier days, but the suspense novels are all since I came to the Christian market.

JOHN: What a wonderful story. I’m wondering if you could talk a little about your book, Intervention, as it was particularly close to you. And were there any other books that were especially personal to you?

Terri: Well, the thing about Intervention is that it’s really about a mother who is trying to save her daughter from drugs. And that came out of my life because I have a daughter who has been struggling for years with drug addiction. When we got to a place where she felt that it was fine for me to write about it, I did. That was SO personal because I poured a lot of my experiences into that book and into the rest of that series… Disciple is the second book and Downfall, the 3rd book will be out March 6th I believe. I really think that there’s a little of me in every one of my books, because what I find happening when I’m writing is that I will come up with a plot and a story line and then God will do something in my life during the writing of that book, or He’ll deal with me in some way that I learn something and then I think that maybe I’m supposed to pass that on to my readers. Almost every book has that sort of event happen. I can’t say it’s always pleasant but sometimes I just really believe that God is working in a certain way in my life, so I wind up incorporating all that it into the plot. Then I know that the Holy Spirit uses [it] because I hear from readers that those books touch them in a personal way. So it’s not just me being smart enough to do that. It’s the Holy Spirit using what I give Him, multiplying it and making it into something He can use.

JOHN: Have you ever felt the need or had an opportunity to move outside of the book realm and share your testimony in a speaking venue?

Terri: I have done some speaking about it but [my daughter] is still struggling – she has her ups and downs like any person with addiction. Until I know that we have had this in our rear view for many years I just don’t think I would want to go on a speaking circuit. Ya know, my dream is to do that with her someday – to have her give her testimony would really give hope to families. But at this point we’re just not far enough out of it to be able to do that and I don’t want that kind of thing to wind up being her destruction – so I have been very protective about that. I do speak about it sometimes. It was a very hard thing to write about, it drags up all those memories. It was fiction, but very much of what is in the book really happened in our lives. So it’s a painful thing to write and talk about.

JOHN: Of course, and it’s good that you’re sensitive to what she needs first and foremost. Switching gears a little, your suspense books certainly have the ability to pull people in. Have you ever been so caught up in one of your own stories that you felt frightened? Did you ever scare yourself?

Terri: (laughs) Yes, that does happen. Ya know, I think one of the reasons I love writing suspense is because I am so easily frightened, and my mind always goes to the worst possible thing (laughs). Like, if I’m letting the cat out I’m thinking someone could grab the door – I’m always on alert for that kinda thing. When I was writing my book Predator, I was just learning social networking and I was alarmed at the number of people who were dumping so much personal information onto their Facebook and Twitter pages. So I wrote a book that would deliberately scare them to death and understand how dangerous this is. But I do have to say it scared me too (laughs), so I did make changes to the way I was posting things and pictures – the kinds of things that would give more information than I wanted to.

When I really decided to write [the book], I had been working in prison ministry for many years. And one of the girls from jail got out and posted on my Facebook wall how to reach her, what her number was, where she was living. And I just almost had a heart attack. Of all of the people who are so vulnerable – someone who just got out of jail. I quickly deleted it and sent her a message to please be careful and then I thought, ya know I’m just going to have to write a book about this (laughs), because that is really my way of communicating with people. When I’m passionate about something I’m able to convey it in a story and people really seem to get it. I did get lots of mail from people telling me that they’ve changed their habits. So hopefully it will save some lives.

JOHN: So are your family members fans of your books?

Terri: Well, my husband is one of those people that loves to read non-fiction, but when he reads fiction he falls asleep (laughs), so he only ‘reads’ my books through audio. That’s a good medium for him and he enjoys them that way. Two of my three kids don’t read anything I write (laughs), but one of them does so, ya know, what can you do? I think they grew up watching me do it and it’s kinda like knowing how the sausage is made. You just don’t have an appetite for it when you saw it all your life! (laughs)

JOHN: That’s a great – and painfully true – analogy. Haha. So what do you do when you want a break from writing?

Terri: Well, I am very active at church – I teach a precept class, Kay Arthur courses. I love that – I’ve been involved in that for years. I also lead a support group for parents of prodigals, so I’m busy at church a couple nights a week. I [also] love home decorating. When I have time and want to do something different it’s usually something related to my house or watching something on TV related to decorating, so I guess that would be my hobby.

JOHN: So you’re a Martha Stewart junkie?

Terri: Well, I like to watch what she does, but I’m not really that organized. I can’t pull it off myself, but I like to watch other people do it.

JOHN: So do you read?

Terri: I do read. It depends on what I’m writing at the time. When I’m writing a book I usually try not to read fiction because it interferes with my voice. I find myself writing the way that the other author is writing, so I mostly just read when I travel. But I love Christian fiction and I have favorites that I like to read. While I’m writing a book I’m usually reading non-fiction and doing research for that book.

JOHN: Do you want to recommend any authors you like?

Terri: Yeah! In the suspense genre for the Christian market, I love Brandilyn Collins, James ScottBell, Bill Myers, Colleen Coble, authors like that. In women’s fiction I love writers like Robin Lee Hatcher, Tamera Alexander, Angela Hunt, Mindy Clark – just a ton of them. You can find anything in the Christian market today that you can find in the general market. If you like science fiction, you can find that in the Christian stores. We’ve come a long way in the last 15 or 16 years that I’ve been in this market.

JOHN: For sure. Alright, really hard question next… Is it pumpkin spice latte or peppermint mocha that you most go for this time of year?

Terri: Ya know what? Neither one! I am a tea drinker. So I would probably go with an English breakfast tea or a hot chocolate, but I am not a coffee drinker. Anything that even tastes of coffee I am not interested in.

JOHN: Would you consider yourself to be a Southern belle?

Terri: Yeah definitely. Anyone who knows me I think would say that.

JOHN: Well, I’ve really appreciated this chat. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Terri. You do a fantastic job and I’m excited about where you’re headed.

Terri: Thank you.

*Congratulations to Terri for earning a spot on the Library Journal’s Top Ten Best Books List of 2011 for Shadow in Serenity. What a great honor for a great author!