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Sibella Giorello Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"Daily journalism taught me how to write fast, but it didn’t teach me much about re-writing. When you’re on deadline, there’s never time for rewriting. And yet rewriting is where the best writing gets done, where God can work in the details." -- Sibella Giorello


Sibella Giorello was a features reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for ten years. Her work has been awarded for excellence repeatedly and she's been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Giorello received her degree in geology from Mount Holyoke College. Her first novel, The Stones Cry Out, features FBI agent Raleigh Harmon who specializes in forensic geology.


C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Sibella: Somewhere in the deep recesses of my feeble mind, I always knew writing would be part of my life. But for many years I didn’t write, or pursued other dreams that had nothing to do with writing – like getting a geology degree or working on a farm or spending the winters as a ski instructor. But when I finally took a job as a features reporter in 1989 I realized writing would form a centerpiece for the rest of my life. It was just too much fun to ever leave again.

As someone who has a degree in geology, what first drew you to the subject, and why did you switch to writing about rocks instead of digging for them?

Since I grew up in Alaska, geology had a natural attraction. Whenever I looked at that landscape, my mind filled with questions: Why do our mountains shoot straight from the ground? How come we get so many earthquakes? Where do these glaciers begin?

But when I formally studied geology – for a college degree -- I discovered just how lousy a scientist I am. Data bored me senseless, and I wanted to turn every hypothesis into a narrative story. But I stayed with geology for several reasons, one of which was that the descriptions thrilled me. More than most sciences, geology needs its adjectives and verbs. After I got the degree, it was really a case of self-preservation to stay away from geology. No sane mining company would have hired me. That would be like hiring Mr. Magoo to be your driving instructor.

You grew up in Alaska?

I’m a fourth-generation Alaskan, which is rare for a Caucasian. My great-grandparents arrived in Juneau in 1884. At the time, Alaska was still a Russian territory, and they were Russian Jews who opened a mercantile at the water’s edge, trading with the gold miners and fur traders and natives. When my grandmother came along in 1885, she was the first white baby born in Juneau.

How did you come to be a features reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch?

When I graduated with that geology degree, it was 1985 and the oil and mineral market had collapsed. Nobody was hiring geologists --.and they certainly weren’t interested in the world’s worst scientist . So naturally, I bought a motorcycle I didn’t know how to ride and after practicing in the parking lot of the bike shop, I started a cross-country journey from Massachusetts to the West Coast. It was totally ludicrous. That bike looked like a Harley, but it was really a glorified scooter with a 250-cc motor. If I ever got the thing over 60 mph, it howled in agony.

But along the way, I bought all the local newspapers. And somewhere in Texarkana, I decided it would be great to work as a reporter. Meet people, write about them, get paid enough to feed my dog. When I finally reached Seattle nine months later, I got a second degree in journalism from the University of Washington, then applied for a bunch of internships. Richmond offered the best gig. It was three months and paid what I considered a small fortune: $800 a month I drove back across the country -- this time in a truck with my dog -- and when my three months ended, the paper offered a full-time reporting job. Now, mind you, they offered me a job that didn’t actually exist. There was no beat open for coverage. They didn’t even have a desk for me. The first two years I carried everything in one gargantuan backpack. When it came time to write, I’d scurry into the newsroom, hunt for an unoccupied desk, and write as fast as possible until the lawful occupant returned, forcing me to move to another desk, where I would write as fast as possible, etc., etc. But I didn’t mind. My editors gave me total creative freedom, never demanding obits or coverage of some sewer treatment meeting. They just let me write. Now how big a blessing was that?

What was the number one thing you learned about writing during your newspaper days?

Grab the reader by the throat and don’t let go.

I learned this the hard way, during my first week on the job. I was washing my clothes at a Laundromat and saw a man reading my feature story. I stood there, utterly transfixed, staring at this guy reading my precious, precious words. My heart pounded. Tingles ran up and down my spine. Then the dryer buzzed and the guy tossed the paper on the ground.

You might think your words are precious, but life intrudes on the waking dream that writers try to present. So right there, I decided to write in a way that would keep people reading --- even after the dryer goes off.

Why did you turn to fiction?

As a feature writer at a newspaper, I studied fiction for technique – how to use dialogue and description, when to insert flashbacks. The better feature stories employ tricks from fiction. But after awhile it felt like an apprenticeship that needed to grow into something larger, like an actual novel. I tried short stories but I just don’t enjoy writing them, the same way I don’t like sprinting but love running long distances.

The Stones Cry Out by Sibella GiorelloTell us about your first novel The Stones Cry Out.

The protagonist is a forensic geologist named Raleigh Harmon who works as an FBI agent in Richmond, Virginia. When the book opens, she’s on a routine case involving some suspected Civil Rights violations. The case is low-priority – so low that the FBI tells her to wrap it, with or without answers. But the more she finds out about the case, the less simple it becomes. Each step forward leads her deeper into a web of Southern politics and racial strife. Despite the Bureau’s insistence on closing, Raleigh literally digs deeper for answers – a choice that brings stunning consequences.

How much of the story is based on real-life incidents?

Not many real-life incidents but a lot of real-life research. The main real-life incident came from an FBI geologist who told me about working a Civil Rights protest, how he got treated, what he had to go through to collect evidence. I changed the particulars to fit my character and plot.

When I started the book, I knew nothing about the FBI, nothing about forensics and, as we’ve established, I am the world’s worst scientist. Many experts spent considerable time educating me, from geologists to Special Agents to morgue technicians.

What was the hardest part about writing The Stones Cry Out?

Staying the course. Six months into the project, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He moved to Richmond from Alaska so I could take care of him. At the time, I had a new baby, along with my reporting job with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, not to mention my wonderful husband. With all these commitments, I had to put the research aside. That’s when I started those fervent incessant prayers that lead you through the valley, eventually.

Fast forward three years. I’ve lost my father, along with both my parents-in-law, and gained another baby. It was tough territory. But slowly, slowly, life opened up. And when I began research again, the experts appeared out of nowhere, eager to help. It was clearly God’s timing the second go-round. And what I learned during that rough patch is that God really is faithful. He gives, He takes away. He tells you to wait. I learned to trust Him, no matter which answer I received.

What surprised you in your research on the FBI and forensic geology?

With the FBI, it was surprising how many agents were Christians, and how their faith informed their investigations. For instance, one agent described his breakdown, after realizing just how much he hated some of the people he arrested. These were rotten people – child molesters, rapists, murderers -- but God still loved them. And as a Christian this agent realized Jesus called him to love these people, separate from their sins. When he got this revelation, he broke down in tears. Interestingly, his change only increased his abilities as an investigator.

What surprised me about the forensic geology was how frequently minerals appear in crime scenes. Cosmetics, paints, inks, building materials, sands, soils, kitty litter – they’re all packed with minerals.

I hear you grew up Jewish but converted to Christianity later in life. What brought about the conversion?Sibella Giorello

My mother was Jewish, my father was Catholic. I bounced between synagogues and Mass most of my life. In college I took as many religion courses as I could, trying to figure out the whole thing, but all that did was feed my head more questions.

When I was working as a reporter, I got sent to a Pentecostal camp to write a feature story and while there I met an amazing family. They basically adopted me, since I was so far from home, and the mother had a Jewish background similar to mine. It was through many late-night discussions with her that my heart began to open. Characteristically, I read everything I could get my hands on about Christianity. As a reporter, you’re trained to be skeptical and I was reluctant to turn my back on my Jewish heritage – it was among the most precious things to me. But it finally hit me, like a thunderbolt, with a clarity so powerful, so supernatural, that my heart and mind finally understood. Not only was Christianity a Jewish religion, Jesus really was the Messiah.

When I try to explain it to people, I tell them it’s kind of like a math equation you keep working on and working on but you just can’t understand it. The theorem seems beyond your comprehension. But one day, suddenly, you get it. And once you get it, you can never “not get it.” You understand, on a profound level, and there is no turning back toward not knowing. There is only forward. And more.

You say in your bio, “I wanted to write a book where Christians were portrayed realistically.” Can you expand on that quote a little bit? How did you go about doing this?

Particularly in mainstream mysteries, where colorful villains are essential, Christians are often portrayed as twisted freaks -- like some long-lost inbred cousins of those guys in “Deliverance.” What a load. Look around this troubled planet and start counting heads. The Christians will come up as the majority doing the good work, as the hands and feet of Jesus. I understand the need for dramatic conflict, but that skewed negative portrayal of Christians has as much to do with secular agendas as literary techniques.

I wanted to read a mystery with a “normal” Christian, going about her difficult work in a gritty city. I wanted readers to see her Christian struggle, how a life of faith does not mean everything is sunshine and light. On the contrary, we’re still tempted to sin, tempted to doubt, and we can experience moments when we wonder if God is really listening. Those are the valleys we all walk through. We’re not perfect. But we are forgiven through grace.

As for how to write that depiction, simply read the Bible. It’s full of these character studies, if you will, including David’s bumpy road. And if you’ve also got the Psalms, they’re full of people raising their fist in some querulous way, then submitting to a holiness they can’t fully comprehend. What it tells me is this: We serve a God who can take our doubts. He can handle our temptations, our sins. He’s not some Creator called in from Central Casting. He’s God!

Sibella GiorelloHow do you balance being a mom, homeschooling your kids, and writing?

On rough days, I might be tempted to rephrase that question, leaving off the first word: “Do you balance being a mom, homeschooling, and writing?”

Mostly, we have days filled with joy and teachable spirits, academically and spiritually. And I’ve come to realize my roles have something crucial in common: Each is about service. Motherhood and homeschooling are obvious that way, but writing is a servant’s life, too. You’re working for the reader, creating on behalf of the greatest creator of all.

But I don’t recommend writers take on too much, especially if their heart isn’t in it. The only way to know whether something fits is to remember that His yoke is easy, His burden light.

What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?

I’ve been writing a book in my head ever since my grandmothers started telling me stories as a little kid. My maternal grandmother was kidnapped by Indians -- spirited away in a canoe with a blanket over her head when she was five years old. Her brother rescued her, but later they had a huge falling-out because she married a gentile. My other grandmother was a Broadway actress who fled to Alaska in 1931 after her husband died mysteriously. Both grandmothers were my best friends growing up and they told me stories about the rough and tumble atmosphere of an Alaskan gold-mining town. It all begs for a book.

Your most embarrassing moment as a reporter or during your research for The Stones Cry Out was:

While interviewing an FBI agent in his office, I looked down and saw baby spit-up on my right shoe. I’d rushed out of the house, handing my husband the baby. For the rest of the interview that foot stayed hooked behind my left calf, hiding the baby puke. When the agent stood up to continue the interview, I stood up, too, but kept that foot hooked behind me. It probably looked like I had to use the bathroom.

What authors or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?

The early influences are still strongest: C.S. Lewis, particularly the “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Mere Christianity.” John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” and the mysteries of Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, and John D. MacDonald.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?

It’s okay to read the first draft and decide you are completely incompetent.

Daily journalism taught me how to write fast, but it didn’t teach me much about re-writing. When you’re on deadline, there’s never time for rewriting. And yet rewriting is where the best writing gets done, where God can work in the details.

What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?

There have been several, but at one point, I was stretched so thin that words didn’t work anymore. An esteemed non-profit magazine asked me to write a piece, but when they read it, they turned it down. And it was pro bono work! I literally couldn’t give my writing away. Then a great friend, Phyllis Theroux, an incredibly good writer, said, “Just go fallow.” She told me to stop producing, let the soil rest, the seeds germinate, then cultivate a bloom. I still Sibella Giorello“go fallow” from time to time.

But now my recommendation for writers in any valley is to read Brandilyn Collins’ blog Forensics and Faith. She’s written a piece called “How I Got Here” and that essay is one of the greatest ministries for writers (click here to go directly to the piece). Not only is she a fabulous wordsmith, she’s gifted with encouraging writers and pulling them from the enemy’s clutches.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing the sequel to “The Stones Cry Out.”

What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

1. I’m not Italian. Not one drop. Yes, it’s true: I have a phonetically arranged marriage.

My choice of college was an act of pure defiance. I went to Mt. Holyoke simply because my parents insisted on co-ed colleges on the West Coast. (Mt. Holyoke is a women’s college, on the East Coast.) This speaks volumes about what I was like as a child.

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Hiking. Running. Swimming. I like to be in motion, which used to make writing a struggle because it’s so sedentary.

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Dark chocolate, eggs, and mayonnaise. But when I asked my husband this question he said: Milk, jam, and butter. My kids said: Yogurt, juice, and apples. Apparently food is in the eye of the beholder.

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

Peppermint latte. It tastes like Christmas.

What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?

The book about my family needs to get written. And one day, I should learn how to accessorize.

What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?

Don’t own an iPod. But the CD player always has Van Morrison in some form. And I just listened to Robin Marks’ “Revival in Belfast.” It’s fantastic.

When was the last time you cried?

Last night I went to a home school spelling bee. There was a little boy in the first-grade group who struggles with developmental delays. His mom helped him get ready for the bee, working with him for months. When he won, he jumped up with joy. And I lost it.

Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

Don’t quit. Just don’t quit. You will never reap the harvest if you quit.

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.