Well, I read a VERY good story recently called A MESSAGE TO JULIA. Julia’s a lot like Angel in that she’s fearless, protective and entirely introspective. I’d like to share with you a review Angel recently received, and then I hope you’ll help me welcome Angel Smits to the Five Scribes.
Like many around the globe I sat glued to the TV as they brought up the Chilean miners after their long ordeal underground. A Message for Julia was timely beyond belief! I could picture Linc trying to fit in the small capsule just as the Chilean miners had to. You must have spent a ton of time researching this one. Based on what I saw and read on the Internet, Julia was extremely accurate.
I started reading this morning and just finished...I couldn't put it down! You have woven a terrific story with complex levels and touching, emotional content. Thank you. I love reading books that touch the heart the way this one did mine.
~~ Nancy Heubeck
D.B: Well, with that I could probably say interview over, go buy this book! But no, Angel’s mine for a few questions at least. ;) Welcome again, Angel. Now I know you’re a Colorado girl, but your story takes place in a fictitious place called Parilton, Pennsylvania and around the Winding Trail Mine. What inspired this story?
A.S.: Thanks, Donnell. What a great intro. You’re so good to me. And that story was really good. I remember that day. I’m really pleased to be here.
To answer your question, the story idea came while I was watching the news coverage of the Sago Mining disaster years ago. I remember a picture of a woman, one of the family members. Her face held so much pain and was streaked with tears, but still she was looking up, hoping to hear some type of news. She touched my heart. I so wanted to give her a happy ending. I couldn’t get her out of my head, and she became Julia.
The setting grew out of that idea. I picked Pennsylvania because the coal mines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania are still very active and are where the coal mining culture is located. We have mines here in Colorado and I know a lot just from my own family’s history, but the culture isn’t here. So I had to go find it.
D.B.: I’ll try not to give the entire plot away, but I picked up the book’s theme was all about understanding and forgiveness. Julia suffers a late term miscarriage, and after months of trying again, her husband Linc refuses to try alternate methods of conception. Along with their different upbringings, his refusal and Julia’s secrets drive them further apart. Unfortunately, it takes a mining disaster for both to put love into perspective. Do you agree with my perception?
A.S. I’d say you’re pretty astute. I think that’s a big part of any relationship that works and when people have hurt each other, as Julia and Linc have done, that’s the only things that can save them. Too often it’s human nature that we don’t “wake up” until something or someone smacks up upside the head.
D.B: The loss of a child storyline has been done. But in MESSAGE TO JULIA, the way you wrote it made me feel for both of these characters. You presented both their viewpoints brilliantly. Will you talk about the male/female point of view? Is this something that comes instinctively or do you struggle with it until you get it right?
A.S.: I used to think I wrote the female POV well and that I struggled with the male POV. That was a rather narrow way of thinking--you know since I’m a girl I’d automatically understand girls, right? So I started going to workshops to try and learn how to write from a guy’s point of view. I felt like I was getting a pretty good handle on it. Then something happened. My son started to write.
I’m part of a group that writes improv regularly and he joined. I’m biased, I know, but he’s pretty good. Listening to his stuff, it dawned on me that gender doesn’t matter. When my son wrote a scene where his hero (a werewolf) was heartbroken over the girl he was in love with, I just sat there in shock. First that my kid had written something so well, and second, that it was so heartfelt, and didn’t sound at all like a girl. Everyone really liked that piece. And I learned a lot. Yeah, guys say things differently, or have different body language, but inside? They hurt just like I do. They feel just like I do. It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female. It’s more about knowing that specific character well. Both mothers and fathers mourn the loss of a child. Since I started writing from Linc’s POV or Julia’s POV not his or hers, my writing’s gotten much better and clearer—and easier.
D.B.: Conflict between other characters is also something you do well. As I mentioned Julia, an only child, has a mind of her own. She’s protective of her students and isn’t thrilled when a seventeen year old quits school to work in the mine. Julia faces censure from the school board for interfering. Later, not only does the seventeen year old get trapped in the mine with Julia’s husband Linc, but the censoring school board member’s husband.
I pictured Angel Smits at her keyboard saying, I’ll put them together until they can play nice. But, wow, did you pull at readers’ heartstrings while doing it. Will you talk about conflict? You set it up so well between characters. And how did this thread in the story come to be?
A.S. Wow you are really going to put me through the paces, aren’t you? Conflict is what stories are about. I have heard Donald Maass talk several times and read his books. (Really great resources. If you don’t have them, get them. Study them.) He talks about heaping on the problems for your characters. Paint them into a corner. Keep asking yourself what more could happen? Additionally, don’t think of it as just one of those hectic days, but what more could happen that will be worst for THIS character. That’s how we are in real life, too, isn’t it? The hectic day eventually ends and you go home, but the painful issues follow you and eventually have to be solved.
Using Ryan seemed to fall naturally in place for me. Julia was a teacher and loved kids, but because of her miscarriage she quit teaching little kids and went to the high school, foolishly thinking that would be safer. Not a chance. I put her in a corner because older kids have even bigger problems sometimes. She couldn’t run away anymore.
D.B. I know that MESSAGE TO JULIA survived many drafts. I think you said that you used flashbacks originally. But I have to say I loved the way the scenes transitioned between the families in the makeshift waiting area to the miners trapped 200 feet below the surface. My heart lurched with every heading. Thursday afternoon, 4:00 p.m. to Thursday afternoon, Three and a Half Hours Underground, finally escalating to Saturday evening, 9:00 p.m. to Saturday Night, Fifty-Four and a Half Hours Underground.
Did you devise this, Angel? Or was this a collaboration of your editor?
A.S.: I have to give Paula Eykelhoff, one of my editors full credit for that idea. Yes, this book was originally written with the Everlasting Line in mind. But when it went defunct, I was still writing the book. Paula and I met at a couple different Romance Writers Conferences and she really liked the idea. We’d brainstorm and I’d come home and rework it. We did that four different times before they made an offer. She thought by actually marking the time, it would add to the tension. It did. It also made me stick really tightly to a timeline, which was a challenge but ultimately great for me the writer and the story.
D.B. You won the Golden Heart in 1996 so it’s no secret that you can write beautifully. But you have such lovely written passages throughout your book, such as…
She nodded. On autopilot, she grabbed her purse and keys and closed the door. Settled in the passenger seat, she looked back at the house as Hank climbed in behind the wheel of her half-loaded car. It looked the same as it had just a few minutes ago--just as it had when she’d driven away on Friday, leaving Linc and it behind--and yet everything was different.
She was different. Numbness took over. Numb was good.
“Zach convince you to write that letter?”
Linc chuckled. “Thinking about it.”
“Thinking don’t get it done.”
That was true, “You writing one?”
“Nope don’t have to.”
“Wrote one years ago, when I had my first heart attack. Left it in the safe deposit box. Shirley’ll find it when I’m gone one day.”
“What’d you say? How did you say goodbye?”
“I didn’t. I told her how much I appreciated having her, not how much I’d hate it without her. Think positive. Leave your wife with a light to see through the darkness. Don’t extinguish it by pointing out what’s hurting her.”
Linc stared at the older man. “How’d you get so wise down here in the bowels of earth?”
“Maybe talking to God near the devil’s playground gives you points.” Gabe whispered the words, and Linc knew he’d drifted off to sleep…
D.B.: I’d give my book away in a drawing, but it’s autographed. Plus, it was kind of soggy by this point. Well done, Angel. I have three final questions/comments before I let you go, because my questions take up three pages.
A MESSAGE FOR JULIA could be construed as political. There are some safety and ethical issues for these men who go down in the mines every day. Was that your intent? The way you delve into the topic is seamless. But I wanted your thoughts on the mining industry, and what you, yourself write, is one of the most dangerous industries.
A.S.: I didn’t start out to put in anything political, but I am drawn to a story that has an issue in it. This one grew organically out of the whole mining industry itself. As I researched and learned more, I realized that. Mining is one of the most perilous fields to work in. People die on a regular basis, and for what? Energy? To run our computers and hair dryers? And they aren’t getting rich doing it, either. Even our military gets hazard pay when they go into dangerous places.
Sadly, even the people within the industry itself don’t agree with each other, which fit perfectly in my story. There are regulations and equipment, like the shelter they had in the Chilean mine that can keep miners safer. Yet few mines have them in place, and there’s nothing to make them do it. Even public outcry has minimal effect.
D.B.: Will you talk about the timing of this book? I understand Harlequin puts out its books months to years in advance. How did you feel when the Chilean mining tragedy hit the airwaves and MESSAGE TO JULIA was on the cusps of release?
A.S. As I said, I started writing this right after Sago which was in 2006. Harlequin bought this book back in April, and at that time, slated it for the December release. Long before the Chilean mine. When Chili happened, we were all a little nervous. If things went bad, it could look pretty bad for the book. It was a little eerie as they were trapped and the stories started coming out. An older guy was the crew chief. One of the guys had a wife expecting a baby any minute now. I told my friends the only plot line I missed was the mistresses, which probably wouldn’t have played out well in a romance anyway.
Sadly, though, there are mining disasters all the time, they just don’t hit the major airwaves. Since Chile there have been at least two others, one in Australia and one in China. So it would have probably been more likely that there wasn’t one.
D.B.: Angel, you should be so proud of A MESSAGE TO JULIA. From my perspective I found your research flawless. My heart ached every time you wrote about the seven pings, and it soared at Seven Bells Consulting. I look forward to many, many more of your heart warming and inspiring books.
A.S. Thanks. It was definitely one of those books I’d call a gift book. It came to me and I so loved Linc and Julia. I’m glad to know others enjoyed it.
To learn more about Angel, check out her web page at http://www.angelsmits.com For anyone who leaves a question or a comment for Angel, you will be entered in a drawing to receive A Message for Julia. We'll draw late Wednesday evening, so be sure to leave an e-mail or a way we can contact you to let you know you've won. Thanks for stopping by, and, Angel, thank you!