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Tosca Lee

The Advocate

Tosca Lee Interview

by C.J. Darlington

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"Fear is always there, and let me tell you: it’s deadly. At best, it will keep you from doing what you are meant to do. At worst, it will kill you. It’s the opposite of perfect love and the only way to keep it at bay is to love..."
--Tosca Lee

Tosca Lee first wowed us with her debut novel Demon: A Memoir, which has been compared to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Since then she’s penned Havah (a novel about Eve) and co-written the New York Times bestselling Book of Mortals series with Ted Dekker.

But perhaps her most ambitious project to date is Iscariot, a novel she ran away from for over a year. Listen in as we chat about her journey from ballet dancer to full time novelist and why it took so long to complete Iscariot.

Before you were a writer, you were a ballet dancer. What about ballet drew you?

As a kid, I’d get up on the footstool and dance and sing made-up songs wearing one of my mom’s wigs. I love telling stories, even without words. Bodies are amazing instruments and dancing is powerful mojo.

You have pursued so many different creative expressions in your day (dance, piano, modeling, etc.) Why do you think fiction won out over all of the others?

I think I just love creative expression. Ballet you can only do for a time; at fourteen I had already torn a groin, had tendonitis, grown too tall for all but the tallest partners (I’m nearly six feet tall on pointe). Piano—I was good, but I was no genius, and I dreaded giving concerts. At the age of 14 when I gave my first solo concert I was sure I’d be the first 14 year-old to die of a coronary. But I’ve been writing all my life. It may sound weird, but words are musical to me—I hear the rhythm of sentences sometimes before I write them. It feels like moving or breathing on the page. Sometimes it’s the only way I can breathe.

Based on some of your hilarious quips in other interviews, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you sometimes got in trouble growing up. True or false?

(Is my mom reading this? If my mom is reading this, then no. Never.)

Actually, I was too busy to get into much trouble. I practiced piano a half hour before school and another hour after every day before going an hour away to dance with the Omaha Ballet. I did my homework and ate dinner in the car. I was way behind on all the popular TV shows, slightly awkward—a relative nerd with a dramatic streak. I didn’t start getting in trouble until college.

You got the idea for your novel Iscariot, and then ran from it for over a year. Why was that?

I knew how much work this kind of novel would be. And it was. It took three years of research and writing, and more to edit. The thing that finally got me was the chance to slip into the skin of one of the disciples and sit down at the side of Jesus. And then it was no longer Judas’ story… it was mine. Which scared the crap out of me.

IscariotWhat was it that made you decide, “Yes, I need to write this book now.”

I couldn’t get it out of my head. I remember sitting in this restaurant one night and scribbling a scene between Judas and his mother on the paper tablecloth. I tore the scene off, stuffed it in my purse, and knew I was a goner. I called my agent a few days later.

How did your collaboration with Ted Dekker impact your solo novel writing, if at all? Did you find yourself writing differently?

I learned a lot writing with Ted. It was fascinating to me to see how he approached plot, character, theme—even the routine of writing, itself. It’s caused me to think more deliberately about what we hope for in stories, what we read them for, and aspects like pacing—not just in storytelling, but in the work. It takes a kind of emotional stamina to live this writing life.

I remember you telling me years ago that when writing some of your other novels you noticed coming under spiritual attack during the process. Did that happen with Iscariot? If it did, how did you overcome?

There’s always that. It doesn’t get better. I rely on the encouragement, prayer, and support of friends, family and my amazing readers… and then the work itself. And a bag of Cheetos.

So much research went into this novel. How important is visiting the locations you write about (Israel in this case) to a book like this? What impact did it have on the story?

I’m a life-long traveler, so for me there’s no better way to absorb the feel of a place than to go, breathe the smells, listen to the people, and eat the food. You can learn a lot about a place by eating the food, actually! Except that six days into my trip to Israel I would’ve knocked off someone’s grandma for a piece of bacon.

When you first started out as a novelist you had to juggle a day job along with your fiction writing. When did you make the leap to full time writer, and what if anything has surprised you about working on fiction full time?

I left my job as a international consultant three years ago. It just got to this point where I had to make a choice—there was no way I could do both any more. I think the most surprising thing is how much of the day can be consumed with the business of writing—the phone calls, the e-mails, travel, marketing, publicity—rather than the writing itself. I do a lot of my writing at night. I sleep between calls during the day. Unless my agent is reading this.

Many years ago you really addressed fear in your life. Why do you believe we need to kick fear to the curb?

Fear is always there, and let me tell you: it’s deadly. At best, it will keep you from doing what you are meant to do. At worst, it will kill you. It’s the opposite of perfect love and the only way to keep it at bay is to love—the people around you, your circumstances, the judgers, the haters, even yourself at your most unlovable. If we don’t love ourselves, we’re going to have a terrible time loving our neighbors as ourselves and extending grace to others. And a grace and love-filled life is the only remedy for fear I know.

Do you think your time as a model helped you escape the clutches of self-consciousness (a form of fear, you’ve said), or has something else, because I absolutely love how unafraid you are to pull off the veil of your life and show yourself on screen without makeup, with messy hair, etc.

Somewhere after my year as Mrs. Nebraska—which was an amazing time—I just got tired of believing I had to have my makeup on to go to the grocery store. I get dolled up for things when I need to, but I’m telling you, between hair and makeup and trying to put an outfit together that doesn’t consist of sweatpants or pajama bottoms, that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back. This is who I am. I have weird hair and a zit on my face like everybody else.

I suspect we are fellow animal lovers by the way you have talked about Attila your Shar Pei. Is he still your roommate? What do you love most about living with four-legged creatures?

I so miss Attila. He passed away a few years ago at the age of 12. I love animals (except when they barf on the carpet—I can do a really good barfing Shar Pei imitation, by the way.) I’ve thought of getting another dog, but I travel so much. Maybe a fish. I could probably do a fish.

Many years ago you were working on a fantasy novel. Did you ever finish it? Will it ever see the light of day?

Ahhh, yes. The Book That Will Kill Me. It’s still on my hard drive. One of these days…

What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had traveling across the US and abroad?

Last year I went down the Amazon river with my mother. The river was flooded and we were able to take school supplies to a village that most people don’t get to when the waters are lower. They were so poor, but they had dressed in their best outfits to see us—a bunch of white people wearing 100 SPF. I just loved meeting all of them, including the old village midwife, who had delivered most of the people in the village. While we were there, I asked this woman if I could hold her adorable baby and she left her in my care for about an hour. They don’t have rubber diaper pants there—the baby peed all over me. It was awesome.

What’s next for you on the fiction writing front?

I’m delving into the Old Testament and returning to the feminine point of view! I’m still fleshing this one out so I’m holding it close for a bit (though I’ve left hints on my Pinterest board.) I will say that you won’t have to wait five years for this one—it’ll be out spring of 2014. More on that soon…

Anything else you’d like to share?

I just want to say thank you to all my readers. I have the best readers in the world and I’m so grateful to be able to share these stories and each of these journeys with them.

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.