by C.J. Darlington
Liz Curtis Higgs Interview
"By God's design, I believe our hearts and minds are shaped by Story. It's how we learn. It's how we make sense of the world. Characters, situations, moral consequences are all around us." -- Liz Curtis Higgs
Liz Curtis Higgs has been telling tales since she attempted her first novel–handwritten in a marble notebook–at the tender age of ten. Successful careers in broadcasting, public speaking, nonfiction writing, and children’s books honed Liz’s storytelling talents, bringing her back to her first love–writing fiction–at the turn of the 21st century.
A gifted speaker, Liz Curtis Higgs has presented more than 1,500 inspirational programs for audiences in all 50 United States as well as Germany, England, Canada, Ecuador, France, and Scotland. In 1995, Liz received the highest award in professional speaking, the “Council of Peers Award for Excellence,” becoming one of only forty women in the world named to the CPAE-Speaker Hall of Fame by the National Speakers Association.
On the personal side, Liz is married to Bill Higgs, Ph.D., who serves as Director of Operations for her speaking and writing office. Liz and Bill share their 19th-century farmhouse in Kentucky with their two teenagers, Matt and Lilly, and too many cats.
You began your public career reaching people through broadcasting. How have those years of being on the radio helped you now in your career as writer/speaker? Is there a specific skill you use all the time from those days?
Writing, speaking, and broadcasting all come under the umbrella of communication. Though each method can feel a bit one-sided while you're doing the work, it's actually a three-way conversation between the Lord, myself, and the audience. The only difference is with speaking I can see my audience; with writing and broadcasting I have to imagine them. Of course, that's the beauty of Facebook and Twitter and email: when readers and viewers respond, our conversation comes full circle.
Radio taught me to think on my feet (actually on my seat, since I did my shows perched on a tall stool!). I learned to reach out to the community, to listen to the needs of my radio audience, and then try to meet those needs. Since those were pre-Internet years, listeners stayed in touch by calling the studio phone, so I had a chance to interact with them one-on-one. I think that's the real key to being an effective communicator: not to imagine thousands of readers or audience members, but to picture just one person who needs the message God has placed on our hearts.
When we last spoke you mentioned you wanted to be a writer by the age of ten, and yet you went into broadcasting instead. Why is that and how did you know it was time to pursue your dreams?
I absolutely adore music, from classical to bluegrass to R&B to rock 'n' roll to folk. In my early college years I did a radio show on our 10-watt campus station called "Jazz Junction," hauling in records from home every Sunday evening to spin R&B/jazz fusion cuts by George Benson, Chick Corea, Roy Ayres, Stanley Clarke, et al. Though I was majoring in English and planning on being a writer, I took a broadcasting course, just to learn the basics.
One night a local television personality was listening, stopped by the station, said, "You could make a living doing this," and gave me the name of a radio station manager, who promptly hired me to do the overnight show. I never dreamed that simple decision would launch a decade-long career! Halfway through those radio years I met the Lord, met and married my dear Bill, gave birth to our son, and started speaking. As audiences began to ask for my messages in written form, I came back to my first love, writing. Is life an adventure or what?!?
I love one of your quotes: “Story was born in the heart of God.” Could you expound on that? And why do you think people are drawn so deeply to stories?
In the beginning was Story. Genesis was spoken before it was written, the story of God and Creation and Man and the Fall. "Story" doesn't mean it wasn't true, not by any means! It was Truth told in story form: "this happened, then this happened, then this happened." From page one of God's Word the storytelling elements of goal, motivation, and conflict are all in place.
The Old Testament is filled with stories of real people who interacted with a real God—a God who knew the best way to teach his people was not by way of Rhetoric, but through Story. In the New Testament we find stories about Jesus as well as stories told by Jesus: unforgettable parables that have changed lives through the centuries.
By God's design, I believe our hearts and minds are shaped by Story. It's how we learn. It's how we make sense of the world. Characters, situations, moral consequences are all around us. Almost from birth, parents tell or read stories to their children, and not merely to entertain them. We're forming their intellects, we're giving them a pair of glasses through which to see and understand their surroundings. And where did we learn how to do that? From the One who made us, "the author and perfecter of faith" (Hebrews 12:2).
So many of your readers are itching to get their hands on Mine is the Night! Congrats on its release. Let’s back up a little bit and talk about the impetus of this novel and Here Burns My Candle. When did the idea to write a story based on the Biblical one of Naomi and Ruth enter your mind and how did you know when to begin writing it?
The book of Ruth has been a favorite since childhood, yet the thought of retelling the story in another time and place didn't leap into my heart until 2003. Just reading the biblical story sent dialogue and scenery and costumes spinning through my head! The themes of loss and redemption are powerful and timeless. It’s a romance for the ages, one that goes far beyond girl-meets-boy. A young woman leaves behind her pagan gods to follow the God of Israel, then leaves behind her family to follow her bitter, broken mother-in-law, and finally leaves behind her widow’s weeds to marry a man who is older than she, yet wise in the things of God. It’s the ultimate rags-to-riches, sorrow-to-celebration story. Glorious! By moving Ruth and Naomi’s journey to eighteenth-century Scotland, I hoped I might help readers look at their story afresh and discover what God might be saying to us about his loving-kindness and mercy.
I'll borrow a paragraph from my armchair travel guide, My Heart's in the Lowlands, to answer your good question, "Why Scotland?"
"Perhaps because when I’m there, I have a sense of rightness, of completion, of belonging. The verdant, rolling hills remind me of places I’ve lived—eastern Pennsylvania and central Kentucky in particular—yet the angle of the sun falling across the Lowland moors is uniquely Scottish. That slanted light works a kind of magic on me. The misty air softens my complexion. Sleep comes easily. Contentment seeps into my bones. I bite into a freshly baked oatcake, covered with a generous slice of sharp Galloway cheese, then sip milk-laced tea, hot enough to numb my lips, and I’m within walking distance of heaven."
How did you decide where to break up the two books?
Since the biblical version has two parts, starting in Moab and finishing in Bethlehem, my story begins in Edinburgh and ends in Selkirk. The relationships are also two-fold: in the first book we focus on a mother-in-law with her daughter-in-law, and in the second the widowed daughter-in-law falls in love with a distant kinsman. (Oh baby. You will love this hero!)
You’ve written several books featuring your beloved Scotland, but
every time period I’m sure has its own unique feel. What sort of
research did you have to do for this series? Did you get to visit Scotland
My first Scottish series was set in 1788-90, with a next-generation book in 1808. When I stepped back to 1745-46 for Here Burns My Candle and Mine Is the Night, I had to begin my research process anew. Fashions were different, certain inventions had yet to come along, and housing was dramatically different, especially in Edinburgh. Even the calendar was different, since Great Britain didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until September 1752.
As to visiting Scotland, aye. Again. But isn't that what frequent flyer miles are for?! Plus I really do need to walk the cobbled streets, drink in the heather-scented air, see the patchwork hills, feel the cool morning mist, and hear that lilting Scottish accent, in order to fully imagine my characters living and breathing there. Or at least, that's what I tell my husband. The truth is, Scotland has stolen my heart and won't let go.
Was there anything
that surprised you during your research, perhaps something you weren’t
able to include in the novels but helped you during the writing to know?
If it really helped me, I probably included it! But there were tons of historical details that never landed on the page. For example, during my on-site visits I spend lots of time tramping around churchyards, jotting down names from the time period, then mixing and matching them to name my fictional characters. In Selkirk I found: Ebeneezer Clarkson, Sir Walter Scott’s doctor; Margaret Hepbourn, daughter of Patrick, Earl of Bothwell, commonly called The Outlaw (oooh, don't you want to know his story?); and Adam Murray, “A Staunch Presbyterian.”
Are you the type who loves research or hates it? Why or why not?
I love research. Love perusing dozens of books, love digging for a particular detail and finding it, love the on-site research especially, love interviewing people, love going to museums, love asking questions. I never cared for history classes in school, and I think it's because the teachers insisted we memorize names and dates, particularly regarding politics and battles, instead of introducing us to common people from various time periods, showing us their day-to-day lives. That is the sort of history I find fascinating.
Where do you
draw the line in portraying violence/adult situations in your novels?
Or is that
you don’t even think about and
just write the story as it comes to you?
I write the story as it comes, letting everything hit the page, then pare back on details that are gratuitous or unnecessary. Every book seems to end up with one scene that requires extra care. I trust my early readers and my editors to flag anything that crosses the line. It is never my intent to offend, or even push some imaginary envelope. I simply want to engage my reader's mind, heart, and emotions, and such high-stakes scenes, handled with decorum, have the potential to accomplish that and teach us something about ourselves in the process.
Of all your
your favorite, and why?
In this two-book saga I became most attached to Naomi's Scottish counterpart, Lady Marjory Kerr. Perhaps because she is an older mother with grown children, her story arc parallels my own journey a wee bit. And I loved watching her grow in her faith. She also provided the biggest surprise for me, when her story line took a major and unexpected shift. I love when that happens!
Would you call yourself a Christian fiction writer or a fiction writer
who happens to be a Christian? Why?
Great question! I am a Christian who happens to write fiction (and, for that matter, nonfiction). My faith shapes my writing style, shapes my characters, shapes my stories, shapes my messages. Though God planted the desire to write in my heart long before I knew him, he didn't truly call me to write, and open doors for me to do so, until he ruled my heart and life. I will ever be grateful for that!
Humor is a
big part of your life, and I love that about you—you
really are an encourager! But what makes you laugh the most in life?
My husband cracks me up. He has a dry, wry sense of humor, and comes out with the funniest stuff, usually when I least expect it. For whatever reason, I don't watch many comedies on Netflix, don't read funny books, don't search for humor on the Internet, don't turn to the comics in the newspaper. The only stuff that makes me laugh is real stuff, especially sight gags. Someone slipping on a banana peel is sure to make me LOL—especially if I'm the one doing the slipping!
next for you bookwise?
After two historical novels, it’s time to return to nonfiction with a verse-by-verse look at the story I’ve been immersed in for the last several years: the book of Ruth! Like my Bad Girls of the Bible series, my next nonfiction book will filter solid, biblical research through a storyteller’s lens, yet with an entirely different approach than I've done before. Assuming my funny bone is in working order, it should also be entertaining, even (dare I say it?) humorous! Look for that one in Summer 2012.
Where can we find you on a Friday night?
If it's spring or fall I'm probably in another city, getting ready to step onto the platform at a Christian women's conference. If it's summer or winter I'm curled up watching a period film on Netflix. Or writing. Or reading. Not a very exciting life, eh?!
What was your first job? Any memorable stories about it?
I was a waitress at the General Sutter Inn, right on the square in Lititz, Pennsylvania. I didn't work in the upscale dining room, but in the all-day coffee shop, called the Dutch Pantry. We had the best seasoned croutons. Odd what you remember about a job. When I wrote Bookends (2000), a contemporary novel set in my hometown, naturally I had my main characters dine at the General Sutter Inn. Too fun.
Favorite movie of all time and why:
Wow. Tough to pick just one. How about five, in no particular order? The Count of Monte Cristo, Sense and Sensibility, Little Women, Gosford Park, Persuasion. All recent period films, yet all timeless. I'm talking about movies I can (and have) watched again and again because of the sheer pleasure of the storytelling, the acting, the production, the music. The King's Speech is going on that list as well. Okay, and all three Lord of the Rings movies. And The Matrix.
Of course, when you throw in that "all time" qualifier, we gotta go back to All About Eve, Rear Window, To Kill a Mockingbird, It's a Wonderful Life, and Gone with the Wind. Okay, hang on a minute. I just thought of ten more...
Favorite Twilight Zone episode:
Just one?! You're killing me, girlfriend! I loved "Time Enough at Last," about the guy who cherishes books (!) above all things, survives an atomic war, realizes he finally has enough time to read, then breaks his glasses. Arrgh! Or "Terror at 20,000 Feet" with William Shatner, who sees a creature on an airplane wing, and can't get anyone to believe him. But "The Eye of the Beholder" is probably my favorite, about a woman who has numerous plastic surgeries trying to look like everyone else. We soon discover she is, by our standards, beautiful, yet surrounded by people we would consider ugly. Fascinating take on what it means to be "attractive" in our society. Ah, but that's another story...
All I can say is, thank you: to the Lord for saving me, to my family for loving me, to my friends for putting up with me, and to my audiences and readers for encouraging me. Ye are a blissin!
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.