The Bethany Pierce File:
by C.J. Darlington
Bethany Pierce Interview
happiest moment in either writing or painting is when you forget
where you are and what you’re doing, when you lose yourself
in an imaginary world."
-- Bethany Pierce
Bethany Pierce was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio to a Nazarene minister and an elementary school art teacher who encouraged the reading of books by storing the television on a microwave stand in the hall closet. At eighteen she enrolled in Miami University’s College of Art to study painting, staying a fifth year to complete a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Her artwork has been exhibited in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Austin. Publisher’s Weekly recently named her first book, Feeling for Bones, one of the top Christian books of 2007. Presently, she lives in Dayton, Ohio where she supports her writing and painting by teaching English.
C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Bethany: I started my first novel entitled Lost in Space while in the sixth grade, but ran out of notebook paper at chapter four. I began writing consistently my freshmen year of high school. I was camping with my family and had just finished a particularly moving book. Looking out at the lake from my lawn chair, I decided to write my own.
Share with us what inspired you to begin writing your first novel Feeling
When I began the manuscript that eventually evolved into Feeling for Bones, I knew I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write it about. In obedience to the adage “write what you know” I spent a month transcribing high school melodramas and dinnertime family conversations—all of which proved rather dry material for literary fiction. Then one evening I sat down and wrote a fictionalized version of a recent trip I’d taken to the doctor’s office. I’d only recently found out that I had an eating disorder. Writing about this revelation for just those few pages was more an exercise in courage than creative writing; I knew I’d found my story.
What did the journey toward finding a publisher look like for you?
I went to Barnes and Nobles and bought a six inch guide to publishers, the Yellowpages for authors seeking editors and agents. With a highlighter, I marked any publishing house that accepted the kind of work I was doing. (Not that I knew what I was doing: inspirational? family saga? young adult?)
I sent query letters out for several years, but didn’t actually find a publisher until I was one year into graduate school and some two hundred pages into a new novel. After several years of improving my work in college writing workshops, I had little faith in the Feeling for Bones manuscript, but I couldn’t imagine all those years of work culminating in a stack of paper hiding in my desk draw. I decided I would send the book out a dozen more times just in case.
Shortly after sending out that last batch of queries, I received an e-mail from an editor saying he was interested in the chapters he’d seen; could I send him more? I was working a summer job in the English office at the time. I had to run to the bathroom and lock myself in a stall so that none of the secretaries would see my victory dance.
How much of you is in your character Olivia, the protagonist of Feeling for Bones?
Originally, I don’t think there was much of a distinction. I was struggling with an eating disorder and with my newfound faith in Christ. Olivia became a fictional doppelganger, a filter for my emotions. Over the years I moved on, but Olivia stayed. While my own difficult high school experiences faded to bad memories, I could still look in on Olivia’s world as a place that existed parallel to my present life.
The novel had been through as many as five revisions, but my editor requested a last overhaul before he would consider the book for publication. As a part of that revision, I changed the point of view from omniscient to first person. Ironically, I had to get distance from Olivia’s character before I could actually write from her point of view intimately. After seven years she’d finally become her own person.
If you’re willing, Bethany, would you share with us how you struggled with anorexia and ultimately how you found healing? What would you like to share with young girls who were like you?
I had to learn that my body was not the enemy and my mind was not the enemy—the enemy was that voice telling me I had to obey self-inflicted rules of diet and exercise. First, I had to recognize these idealized notions of beauty and these self-created ideas of control as lies. Once I started fighting the lies, I stopped fighting myself.
But everything I just said is completely abstract, which frustrates girls who want to know how to get up in the morning and eat normally without losing their sense of balance. Practically speaking, I had to take all of high school day by day. Instead of trying to live a “normal” life without any rules, I invented new, healthy rules (“all good things in moderation” for one). Inventing new rules allowed me some sense of control even while I regained my health.
In college years later, I realized that if I helped other people with their problems, I temporarily forgot my own. Rather than obsessing about the food I’d just eaten or was going to eat, rather than sitting alone in my room staring at the mirror, I sought out friends or even acquaintances who needed some kind of help or encouragement. I know it sounds Pollyanna, but I promise my motivations were entirely selfish: so long as I was thinking about someone else’s life, I was distracted from my own. Instead of measuring my worth by inches, I began to measure my worth in the affirmation and kindness I received from the people I was building relationships with. That particular year, I made some of the most memorable friendships I’ve had to date.
What was the hardest part about writing Feeling For Bones and why?
Even looking at the book again was difficult, much less rewriting it. Like I said, I’d already moved on from the place I’d been mentally and physically in high school. Reworking the novel required remembering things I’d long since learned to forget. It was difficult to pull those old weaknesses and fears out of the closet, dust them off, and describe them with new, pretty language.
The other “hardest part” occurred much later. When the book finally went to print, the publishing house asked if they could advertise the novel as autobiographical. I knew selling the book that way would invite reader speculation about the relationship between the truth I’d lived and the fiction I’d created. I didn’t mind people asking about my life, but readers often assume every character in the book is an exact replica of a person in my life. It bothered me (and still bothers me) to know I may have subjected my friends and family to scrutiny.
You’re also a talented painter! When did you start painting, and how has it evolved over the years (Editor's Note: Several of Bethany's paintings are pictured in this interview)?
Mom maintains that I’ve been an artist since I drew fingers on my stick figures in kindergarten. Teachers complimented my drawings, but I don’t think I put much stock in the praise until my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was fortunate enough to have several very wonderful art teachers who encouraged my interest in portraiture.
Even when I started taking art-making more seriously, I had no aspirations for a career in the fine arts; I wanted to illustrate children’s books. College took me in a different direction. Once again, I was lucky to have fabulous professors, one of whom taught me classical oil paint glazing techniques. He encouraged each of his students to develop consistent bodies of work. I’m still developing the themes I started in that studio my junior year of college.
If you had to pick painting or writing to pursue full-time for the rest of your life, which would you pick and why?
Writing, no competition.
I love waking up to a day of books and paragraphs and imaginary characters
imaginary conversations. Painting, on the
other hand, is pure sweat and frustration. I fight the paint in a way I
don’t to fight the words. I’m hoping it’s just a phase.
Do you find the two artistic mediums compliment each other, or do they require different parts of your brain entirely?
I suppose the happiest moment in either writing or painting is when you forget where you are and what you’re doing, when you lose yourself in an imaginary world. Other than that blissful moment of un-self-consciousness, painting and writing are very different for me. The materials for learning fiction are much more accessible. When it comes to books, all the masters are at your fingertips. For anywhere from five to twenty dollars you can have an “original” Fitzgerald, or Austen, or Brönte. To see art you have to travel, because paintings don’t translate to the printed page.
Who are some authors you enjoy reading now, and why do you enjoy them?
Right now I’m going through all of Nick Hornsby’s novels; I wish I had his ear for dialogue. I’m reading anything I can find by Karen Joy Fowler. Her writing is so elegantly sparse and witty and surprising. I’ve never read work like hers, and I like being surprised. For the last few weeks, I’ve also kept Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek close at hand. It’s been a few years since I first read the book, and I’m trying to pace myself this time through.
What motivates you to get out of bed and head to your keyboard?
Coffee, good books, deadlines, or some lethal combination of all three. Mornings are one of my favorite times to write. If I go directly to the desk from bed without getting dressed or looking at my To Do list, I never quite leave the hazy world of dreams. Working late at night is the second best time to write. Any slot of time within two hours proximity to sleep works, really.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I prefer to write in my office at my drafting table, which used to belong to my grandfather.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
I wish I’d known not to take myself too seriously…but I’m still trying to learn that lesson.
What’s next for you novel-wise?
I’m working on
a playful take on chick lit. I have to thank my editor for the idea.
Feeling for Bones was released he approached
me with the idea of writing a series of books that followed the daily dramas
of a thirty-something English teacher trying to make her way in life as
a writer and a believer. The story has been a riot to write. Much more
playful than Feeling for Bones. The manuscript is nearly finished, but
no news on publication just yet.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
Two of my toes are webbed on both my feet. (That’s weird enough to count for “two things”, right?)
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love thrifting. An hour at Goodwill cheers me out of my worse moods. I enjoy traveling to new cities and new places. Last summer I lived in Boston for several weeks—a fantastic experience until I got bed bugs.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Toast and a banana and coffee from a French press.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Milk, apples, dark chocolate.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
I have no idea. I’m the one studying the menu trying to remember if a “grande” is small or large.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
To find gallery representation for my paintings.
When was the last time you cried?
After reading a short story entitled “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.”
Three words that best describe you:
Romantic, introspective, moody.
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
Brandi Carlile and the Juno soundtrack.
Bethany talk about Feeling for Bones:
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.