by C.J. Darlington
Robin Jones Gunn Interview
early claim to fame was that I was in a band with Bob Carlisle of 'Butterfly
-- Robin Jones Gunn
Robin’s first novel was published in 1988, and she has continued to write between two to five books a year. Her 63 published books include 47 novels, all of which are still in print. Sales of her popular Christy Miller Series, Glenbrooke Series and Sisterchicks Series are approaching four million copies sold, with translations in nine languages.
Robin’s passion for storytelling and travel are evident in all her books, especially the Sisterchicks novels, and she has received thousands of letters from readers around the world who have come to know Christ through her writing. She sees this as her dream come true. Her novels are traveling to foreign lands and her characters are doing what she always longed to do; telling people about God’s love.
C.J.: It’s been said that you didn’t originally set out to be a published author. What was it that motivated you to first set words to paper?
ROBIN: While it is true that I didn’t set out to be a published author, I knew I was a chronic storyteller. Always. I remember writing 14 page letters to my pen pal in sixth grade. She would reply with a few terse paragraphs about school or the weather and I’d reply with another epic saga of life as I saw it happening around me. I loved weaving tales. Still do.
What motivated me to attempt publication was encouragement from several sources but mostly from my husband. I think he was the first person who believed in me, or more accurately, he believed in the gift God had given me of spinning stories out of straw. He urged me to get training and direction on how to enter the publishing realm and pressed me to go to my first writers’ conference.
Once you took the leap, did you find it harder than you’d imagined, or was it something that came naturally?
The storytelling part comes naturally. I love to write, and the words usually flow.The difficult part is the business end of it. I never imagined there would be so many decisions, discussions, deadlines and drama. I signed with an agent a few years ago and that has made a world of difference. Janet at Books and Such Literary Agency is the best!
The other part that is still challenging for me after 22 years of writing for publication is finding a way to protect my time so I can get enough writing time in during the week. I still don’t act as if I have a full time job and the result is that I appear “available” all the time to others. That’s my doing. It’s my choice. But it gets me into schedule catastrophes more often than I’d like to admit. For years I would get up at 3am, three days a week and write until 7:30am just to have set aside time to work. I still do that when I need the quiet time. Actually, I got up at 3am two days in a row last week while finishing a book.
You’ve been quoted as saying “…the stories I wanted to tell were stories about the value of loyal friends who speak the truth into your life even when you don’t want to hear it.” Share with us how you’ve infused this theme into the Sisterchicks® series.
I think this kind of truth-speaking and life on life interaction happens organically once a friendship hits a certain depth. I don’t know how or when it happens. That part is still a mystery to me. I do know that with some people it takes a lot of time while with other women it can happen quickly. Once a woman enters into that vulnerable place in friendship where she feels the freedom to share her heart and her friend responds the same way, a bond is formed. Rarely can they go back to interacting on a surface level. They’re knit together.
In each of the Sisterchicks® novels I took two women who were ready to open up to each other on that deeper heart level. I took them out of their comfort zone and put them in another corner of the world where they had to become more dependent on the Lord and on each other. What happened after that in each story is unique to the two women, just as in real life. But also as is often the case in real life, the results were that the women opened their hearts more completely to God and to each other.
And isn’t that what Jesus told us to do? Love God with our whole heart and love others.
The latest in the series, Sisterchicks® Go Brit sounds like a fun read. What sort of research did you have to conduct for this book?
Ah, yes! The all important research. I had to go to England, of course. My editor, Julee, came with me and we had a fantastic time. The first few days we stayed with another good friend of mine, Marion, who lives in England. She showed us the sights Sisterchicks style! Our tour of Oxford and all things Tolkien and Lewis was an especially memorable day. The account of Oxford that appears in the novel needed very little embellishing over our real life experience. It was zany!
We also met with a group of British Sisterchicks readers who called themselves the Blessed Chicks. We had a silly, frilly tea party at a very old hotel in Bedford and ended our time together in prayer. It was such a treat! Sisterchicks are the same around the world.
To let readers in with a sneak peek at the story behind the story, I’ve added a scrapbook/travel journal entry at the back of Sisterchicks Go Brit!. You’ll find a photo of the Blessed Chicks at one of our sillier moments
What was your most interesting and/or embarrassing experience in researching Sisterchicks Go Brit?
Well, once you read the bits about Oxford and remember that very little was embellished, you’ll have my most interesting and/or embarrassing experience rolled into one.
You also have a new YA book on the shelves, Peculiar Treasures. We’d love to hear the story of how you came to write this book. I understand you almost gave up writing for youth but God prompted you to write this story?
Every week I received requests from readers all over the world asking me to write more novels for teens. With every letter I asked the Lord, “May I, please?” The answer was always silence. Over the past six years I tried writing about Christy and Katie in Glenbrooke novels and Sisterchicks novels but it never fit quite right. I even approached two different writers about the possibility of them writing about these characters. Both times the projects didn’t develop. So I kept surrendering, stepping back and asking God, “What’s next?”
The answer came in a unique way one afternoon two summers ago. I was stretched out on the couch for a little nap. In my heart I distinctly sensed the Lord saying, “I’m giving Katie back to you.” I opened my eyes and looked around to see who spoke because the words seemed so clear. Out loud I said, “Am I making this up or are you directing me?” Just then the music on my computer switched to a song I have long considered Christy and Todd’s, the song “Poeme” by the group Secret Garden. I felt a rising sense of excitement. God was doing a new thing.
Can I just say that I think God and His timing are amazing? This story rolled off my heart and I love being back with these characters! I’m currently writing the third book in the series. Book 2, On A Whim, is scheduled to release in October 2008.
How does this book differ from the Christy Miller and Sierra Jensen series?
Since Katie Weldon is Christy Miller’s best friend, the series picks up where the last Christy Miller book ended. The final book that wrapped up the Christy Miller and Sierra Jensen series is “I Promise”. It’s book 3 in the Christy and Todd: The College Years Series published by Bethany House. This fall Bethany is re-releasing all three College Years books in a single anthology. Very fun!
So, for readers who are already friends with Christy and the gang, the Katie Weldon series will be their ticket back into the world of all those twenty-something friends. For readers who have just discovered the first Katie Weldon book, “Peculiar Treasures” will be their invitation to enter into a circle of friends whose lives stay with you long after you turn the last page.
Maybe your question can be better answered by the review Publishers Weekly gave “Peculiar Treasures”:
“Gunn has been writing about Katie and her friends for years, most notably in the Christy Miller series, and this is the first in Gunn’s Katie Weldon series. Katie’s dilemmas may seem like the stuff of unabashedly light fiction, but they aren’t without gravity and intrigue. Gunn is adept at denuding light fiction of its usual tics – mediocre prose, clichéd characters and predictable plots – and imbuing it with the hallmarks of literary fiction. The characters are multidimensional and ring true at nearly every turn. The dialogue that ensues is at once heartbreaking and utterly familiar to anyone who has ever been in Katie’s shoes. Moreover, Katie’s religious faith never feels sentimentalized or tacked on, but is integrated beautifully into the charming plot.”
Your first youth novel was published back in 1988. Have you found yourself changing the way you write at all to be more relatable to today’s youth? Why or why not?
This is a great question because the answer is no. I haven’t changed much as a writer. Yes, times have changed and technology has changed. We’ve updated the books at various intervals to account for those adjustments. But at the core these are stories about what a young woman thinks and feels and how she relates to her friends and family. Those gut-level thoughts and feelings don’t seem to change much from generation to generation.
I had a letter from a 70-something grandma who bought all the books for her granddaughters and ended up reading the whole series before handing them over to the teens. The grandmother wrote to say that she remembered having some of the same feelings when she was a teen as Christy, Sierra and Katie expressed in the stories. Then her 12 year old granddaughter started reading the books and said, “Grandma, these books are all about exactly what I’m going through right now. They’re like the Anne of Green Gables books for my generation.”
I love that.
What’s your favorite story a reader has shared with you about how one of your books touched their life?
I’m not sure I couldn’t pick just one. I love hearing how God has touched lives through these stories. We’ve received hundreds of letters and emails over the years from young hearts who tell me they have surrendered their life to Christ after reading one of my books. Is that amazing, or what? God is so creative in how He reveals Himself to open hearts. Hundreds more readers have written to say they made decisions for purity in their relationships with guys or that they’ve chosen to forgive a friend who wounded them or that they’ve decided to trust God in a deeper way. It’s a worshipful experience every time I open the mail. I can’t wait to meet all these God-lovers when we get to heaven!
Yesterday I had an email from a woman in Norway who said my stories showed her “God’s personality”. She said now that she sees more clearly what His heart is like, it has become possible for her to trust Him and receive His love. Isn’t that cool?
I have to admit that all the international mail I receive is what really gets me choked up. These stories are going around the world. I was in Brazil last year and met thousands of young women who have trusted Christ after reading about “Cris” and “Selena” in Portuguese. I always wanted to be a missionary and travel to remote parts of the earth. And look what God is doing! He’s sending these books around the world!
Of all your characters, who’s your favorite, and why?
I’m sure most writers would say the same thing – “You wouldn’t ask a mother to pick her favorite child! Each character is special to me and has pieces of myself or of people I know in his/her personality.”
So I shall be like most writers and say I have a special fondness for all my characters.
What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?
I would love to write about anything that has to do with Hawaiian history. I’m fascinated by the early missionaries to Hawaii, which is why I’ve incorporated bits of Hawaiian history in many of my novels.
A few months ago while speaking at a conference on Oahu I went to the Mission Houses Museum, where I am a long standing member. I was able to request the original documents from a journal by Juliette Cooke who sailed to Hawaii in 1837. These pages are kept in climate-controlled rooms. I had to wear gloves and use little tweezers to slowly make my way through each page. It was a dream come true, seeing her handwriting and the little pictures she sketched on the thin paper. Currently I’m working on transcribing all the original documents by Juliette Cooke so that the museum will have digital copies of these fragile documents that are falling apart.
This is my hobby. I love Hawaiian history. I’m certain my future books will contain even more bits of this place and people I love so dearly.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
I’ve loved the journey. I can see where over the decades God’s hand was leading first here, then over there, then down here and up again. I wouldn’t know what I know now if I hadn’t taken each step and been tutored by the Author and Finisher of my faith. I think there is such a rare and pristine sort of joy that comes with the journey when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. All you can do is show up and be teachable. I think God pretty much takes it from there. Up and down and all around. That’s the process.
What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?
I’ve had quite a few lowest points. I’m sure I’ll have more. “Getting out” is more like “getting through” for me. The basics are the same in good times and bad. Show up. Be available and teachable. Humble yourself before God and He will lift you up. Every time.
I wrote a little bit about this in the next Sisterchicks novel, “Sisterchicks® in Wooden Shoes!” Noelle and Summer are talking about hard times and quoting the 23rd Psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .” One of the friends realizes the word is “walk”. We walk through the valley. We don’t stop. We don’t sit down and have a hissy fit. We don’t freak out and accuse God of leaving us, just because we can’t see Him behind that shadow of death. We walk. We take one more step and then another and He is always with us. He is our Shepherd.
I’ve heard C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, a sci-fi story, is one of your favorite books. What do you love most about that book?
I first read Perelandra when I was in high school. I hadn’t read the Narnia tales yet so this was my first portal into the land of Lewis. I remember feeling that sense that I’m sure millions of readers have sensed -- that an imagination is a gift and should be used to the fullest. As an imaginative person, I wasn’t alone. When Ransom rode the dolphins, I felt the sea spray on my spirit and I couldn’t wait for eternity and all the wonders God has waiting for us at His house.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
Besides the part about me being a nut about Hawaiian history, they might be surprised to know that my husband and I have been married for 31 years and we met on a church youth group outing when we were the counselors for a junior high bike ride to Santa Barbara.
Oh, wait, I have a better one. Are you ready for this? My early claim to fame was that I was in a band with Bob Carlisle of “Butterfly Kisses” fame. We were in high school and I played a flute. Bob wrote all the original music and we used to go around to churches in the area and perform. I remember my mom made me a special flowing hippy style dress for our gigs. It was the 70’s, you know. Had to wear the long gauzy skirt to go with the long, straight hair. I think I have a picture of us somewhere. Now wouldn’t that be a giggle?
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Traveling. Anywhere, anytime. I love spending time with family and friends, daydreaming in the backyard hammock on blissful summer days and thinking up ways to get back to Hawaii.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Soy protein shake with lots of ice cubes and almond milk.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Half and Half, omega 3 eggs and Ezekiel bread.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
Decaf, grande Americano with room.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
I don’t have an actual list. Although every January I take a day to quiet myself before the Lord and journal and pray and ask one of my favorite questions, “What’s next, Papa?”
I do want to visit Africa. (Plans are in place for me to attend a writers conference in Nairobi in 2009.)
When was the last time you cried?
Yesterday. I attended a funeral for Olivia, a newborn that died at birth. She was beautiful.
Three words that best describe you:
A God Lover
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
50 Best Poems in the English Language
Moya Brennan - Signature
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
Yes! Please, oh, please, come by www.robingunn.com.
I’m celebrating my 23rd year in Christian Publishing this summer. When you come to my website and sign up to receive the Robin’s Nest Newsletter by August 1st, you will be entered into a drawing to win a free, autographed copy of one of my books. 23 winners will be selected randomly and notified by the end of August. So please come by!
Also, I’d love to invite all Sisterchicks to come by www.sisterchicks.com for a visit. Jump on into the online community you’ll find there.
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.