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Sibella Giorello

The Advocate

Sibella Giorello Interview

by C.J. Darlington

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"I've always been intrigued by things like horse tracks, circuses and elaborate gala events. They're all dual worlds. We see the display, the public part, but there's also the backstage, where it seems to me the real action is taking place. I'm drawn to what goes on behind the curtain." --Sibella Giorello

Sibella Giorello is the fourth generation of her family to grow up in Alaska. After riding a motorcycle across the country, she wrote feature stories for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her stories won state and national awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. She now lives in Washington state with her husband, sons, a large dog, a sweet parakeet, and a Russian tortoise that could've worked for the KGB.

After four previous Raleigh Harmon novels, did you approach writing your fifth any differently than the others?

Every book is written on my knees -- no joke -- because each book comes with a bunch of imaginary friends demanding a journey of some kind. Since we're dealing with crime fiction, I know somebody's going to die. If that doesn't drop a writer to the floor, they're either dumb or bulletproof.

But this fifth book was written with more music. Throughout the months I wrote, certain songs spoke to me about the characters. In particular, and oddly, I kept hearing Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass playing, "This Guy's in Love with You."
I didn't know why -- until the book's second-to-last chapter.
Which brings me to my first point. Every book is written on my knees.

Writing a series character can have its ups and downs, but what’s great about Raleigh is that she develops as a person through this series while staying consistent in her character where it counts. When and how was Raleigh born in your mind?

Thanks for appreciating Raleigh's emotional adventure. She seems like a gift from God. And a good joke, too. She's taught me the last to know is the writer.

Raleigh first showed up on my walks to work, when I was a reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. My route through the city took me down Monument Avenue, which everyone in America ought to see. It's stunning, painful, historic -- everything we sense about the Civil War, but writ large with bronze statues of Southern military heroes. Across the street from General Robert E. Lee's 60-foot statue was a handsome brick mansion. But unlike the regal houses around it, this one was obscured by overgrown magnolia trees and ivy climbing the brick to the cracked slate roof tiles.

The place haunted my imagination. It got to where I could "see" who lived there: a girl named Raleigh Harmon; her mother Nadine, who wasn't altogether present; and some bohemian guy who rented a room to help cover bills. And one small black dog with uncanny intelligence.

Back then, Raleigh struck me as strong and capable. Unlikely to change.

With every book in this series, she's proved me wrong.

That's what I mean by a good joke.

God gave me Raleigh to write about, and now He's laughing.

Stars Shine BrightThe Stars Shine Bright throws her into another undercover job, this time at a horse racing track! What made you decide to set a story in this interesting business, and what surprised you most during your research?

I've always been intrigued by things like horse tracks, circuses and elaborate gala events. They're all dual worlds. We see the display, the public part, but there's also the backstage, where it seems to me the real action is taking place. I'm drawn to what goes on behind the curtain.

With Raleigh going undercover, the race track seemed like an ideal place to play with double worlds. All those facades and lies -- the track's and hers -- versus truth.

Unfortunately, I knew nothing about horses or race tracks. So I started loitering at Emerald Downs, just south of Seattle. I would show up at 5 a.m. and stay until the last race. Eventually two old guys took pity on me. The first was the track vet, who'd worked there almost 50 years, and the other guy was a former jockey from Saratoga who knew everyone's dirty laundry -- perfect for fiction, right?!

The most surprising part was the horses. Thoroughbreds are such breathtakingly beautiful creatures, but they're also as sensitive as laboratory instruments. They can feel emotions on the wind. Lovely and eery.

I came away from the barns each day feeling as though I'd just encountered some creature that was a strange combination of prize fighter and prophet.

So will you be going out to buy your own horse any time soon? :)

Right now my house is overrun by an extra large dog who thinks she's human, a parakeet named Desmond who has his own Facebook page, and a Russian tortoise who behaves like a 4-x-4 Monster truck.

I can only imagine -- and shudder over -- what kind of horse we'd wind up with. Probably Mr. Ed crossbred with Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Raleigh has a way of getting herself in trouble, which makes for lovely reading, but do you ever find it difficult to put her through so much, or are you one of those authors who’s mean to her darlings and doesn’t bat an eye?

My selfish choice would be for Raleigh to remain the same with every book. But the problem -- and blessing -- is her honesty. The girl can't stand anything fake, and that includes dealing with her own complicated emotions. She doesn't gloss over things.

I admire that quality.

But, boy, does she make my job difficult.THe Rivers Run Dry

Did you know the ending of this story before you began to write, or did you find things surprised you along the way?

I'm always surprised by endings. But in this book, I was caught off-guard by her profound loneliness. And what she would surrender for family and love. God bless her.

Of all Raleigh’s strengths, which do you most wish you had yourself and why?

Her iron resolve.

Life delivers blow after blow, but Raleigh Harmon always gets up swinging.

What is your mission as a novelist?

To tell the truth.

That might sound funny, considering I write fiction. But we all know the feeling, when we're reading a story so elementally true the characters and scenes seem real.

On the other hand, we've probably all experienced the horrible sensation when a false note rips us from the story. Something didn't seem "true." Or true enough to hold our imagination, to suspend disbelief.

That's what continues to stuns me about Jesus' parables. He's telling stories, but they're so true the words pierce our hearts.

What’s the most interesting piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing (or life)?

Life breaks everyone. What you do after that break is what counts.

As a fourth-generation Alaskan, would you ever move back to Alaska if you could? Why or why not?

Alaska's in my blood, it will always feel like "home."

I've had opportunities to go back. But I'm blessed with a Blues musician husband from Queens, New York. I've tried to imagine what Alaska's dark dead of winter would be like for my hunk of Italy. No 24-hour delis, no thriving night life. It just didn't seem fair.

Our terrific compromise is Seattle. I get mountains and rugged landscapes; my hubby gets a dynamic city with an authentic Nighthawks.

The Mountains Bow DownNow that you’ve been writing fiction for several years, how do you feel your writing style has changed (if it has) as you’ve matured as a writer?

I once heard the mark of maturity is the loss of all conceit.

In that way, I'm both more critical about what I write, and more forgiving. I look back on my early work with surprise. I was writing in a sort of white-heat, trying to get this character and her adventures down on paper. Now that I've spent some years with her, the writing has taken on more shades of gray. I hope it's more subtle, and more enjoyable for readers.

But I'm far from "arriving." Writing is a life-long journey.

You have a day you can spend however you like (no deadlines, no pressure, no nothing) what will you do?

First: Get up before everyone else and write for two hours with a bottomless cup of strong black tea.

And since this is an ideal day, everybody remains asleep while I take a long run through the mountains. When I get back home, hungry men are demanding a huge breakfast of heart-attack foods -- eggs, cheese, bacon, more caffeine -- and then we all dive into books and conversation and laughter.

That day is heaven on Earth. Thanks for asking.

What about writing gives you the most joy, and what about it do you wish you could avoid?

The writer's joy is probably the same as the reader's: those moments when a story lifts off the page and sings to us.
Of course, being human, I'd prefer to avoid all that nasty toil that builds the story to that point.

But I've learned there's no easy way, no short cut. Just muscle and pray your way through it.

You strike me as someone who loves nature. What does the Scripture “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” mean to you?

A lot of things. But right now what strikes me are those verbs. "Declare" and "proclaim." They're like shouts, calls The Clouds Roll Awayfor discovery.

I get frustrated by the binary approach some people take with faith and science -- either/or.

I enjoy writing about a forensic geologist who's also a believer because God wants us to explore the mysteries of science. His handiwork -- His brilliance -- is revealed through nature. It baffles me that otherwise intelligent people can still believe the stupid (and I'm using that word literally) theory of evolution. Study the symmetry and design in one tree, from its root system to its bark and leaf veins. Then tell me with a straight face there's no designer.

It's absurd hypothesis. If random chance ruled the universe, tornadoes would rip through junk yards and leave computers in their wake.

But that's not how it works.

What can we expect next from you?

I'm writing the next Raleigh adventure, which follows her life after "The Stars Shine Bright." There are huge changes in her life, so it's really fun work for me.

I'm also working on a teleplay. So many people have told me Raleigh Harmon would make a great TV series.
I feel obliged to prove them right.

Portions of this interview first appeared as an article in the Aug/Sept 2012 issue of FamilyFiction Digital Magazine.

C.J. DarlingtonC.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.