Small beginnings

I submitted the final draft of the manuscript of Bird on Fire to the publishing house today. Now it goes to the copy editor for a final comb through, then to the publisher for styling and other lovely appearance things, and then to print!

So, of course I called my mom to tell her the news. As we talked she asked about sales of my first book, Glitter in the Sun. I said, meh… once in a while a new sale will show up…

But then she remembered and reminded me of this verse –

small beginnings

 

Every great thing, every great movement, every great artist started somewhere.

While I don’t know if I will ever be considered “great”, it is nice to be reminded that a small start is worth rejoicing in.

Invite a Vampire to Church This Weekend

Vampire from Nosferatu to Dracula to Twilight and zombies in Walking DeadI checked out yet another vampire book from the library this weekend. It’s by Scott Westerfeld, one of my favorite YA authors. I haven’t started reading it yet, since I’m working on a book deadline of my own—but it’s sitting on my TBR shelf, a juicy little reward for the faithful writer.

Coincidentally (or not… ) my editor asked me to write a little about vampires for you—challenging me to challenge you to “invite a vampire to church this weekend.”

This should be fun.

Vampires seem to be waning from popular culture at the moment—too much exposure to bright light does that to them I guess—but they’ll never go away. There’s something about the undead such as vampires—and the slower moving but increasingly popular zombies—that has always drawn our imagination.

Over the past five decades supernatural creatures in popular culture have evolved from purely evil destroyers of good—defeated only by faith and holy water, to conflicted creatures trying to retain the last vestiges of humanity in a battle against whatever virus or poison that is turning them. It reflects a change in cultural thinking from one of absolutes to one of degrees, and dovetails neatly with the declining influence of the organized Christian church in Western society.

As if deep down we all know without being told that there might be something to this living forever thing.

Because, of course, there is.

The fact that our fascination with vampires and other undead creatures continues is telling for at least two reasons:

First, we are hungry for the spiritual. In the past 20 or 30 years, even as science advances in leaps and bounds, movies and books featuring the unexplained and supernatural have flourished. The History Channel, for example—a source you might think to count on for presenting the most factual of events—spends weeks at a time on ghosts, prophecies, and access to the gates of hell.

Second, a nagging suspicion that there must be more than this life. For a few years you couldn’t go to the movies without seeing a title that included witches. Then it was all about the vampires—sparkly or otherwise. Now whether cute and recovering or terrifying mindless hordes, it’s all about the zombies. Each of these genres, at its root, has one question—what happens next? And, is it better to live forever, even if it’s in a non-human form?

See, without a faith to instruct us otherwise, we risk walking around in a state of perpetual grief. Unsure if we’ll ever see our loved ones again, and unsettled with the idea that when it ends it ends forever. Theologian George Macdonald addressed grief—trying to define the line between healthy grieving and obsessive grief—more than a hundred years ago. The following quote is often misattributed to C. S. Lewis. It seems appropriate here.

“Never tell a child: ‘You have a soul’,” said George Macdonald. “Teach him: ‘You are a soul; you have a body.’ As we learn to think of things always in this order, that the body is but the temporary clothing of the soul, our views of death and the unbefittingness of customary mourning will approximate to those of Friends of earlier generations.”

When observed through this lens, most vampires appear to be afraid of death, and most zombies completely unaware of their souls. I don’t think there is any better reason to invite them to church than to show a vampire there is nothing to fear, and show a zombie that they do, indeed, have hope.

Would you attend this Hunger Games camp?

So, this happened earlier this week.

Hunger Games Camp in Largo, Fla Has Some Concerned

(Oh! I went to post the link to the original Hunger Games Camp story on MSN.com and the video was gone! The point of the video is  the event organizer explaining the team-building, life-gaining activities at the camp.)

I was about to say – “that’s so COOL!”, but my husband was all, “can YOU beLIEVE this? A summer camp that glorifies kids killing other kids?”

But, he’d only read the headline – so I explained to him that it’s all team-building stuff – not a single paintball gun or Nerf arrow in sight. (Do they make Nerf arrows? If not, they should. I’d totally be onboard with those!)

I understand his concern, though. He’s seen the movie. It’s graphic. The deaths are deplorable and violent. (The Huffington Post picked up the story and had this to say about it.) This is my primary problem with movies. When I’m reading a book I don’t “see” the blood. I register that a character died, but I don’t invest my imagination in the details – and if the book is particularly graphic, I’ll even skip a few sentences so I don’t have to carry that image in my head. In the books the story does not drown in the deaths. In the books we hear lead character Katniss’ thoughts as she navigates this horrifying world, trying to avoid both killing and being killed. Knowing she is suffering somehow makes our suffering  as observers easier to bear.

What the Hunger Games is truly about, beyond the gory-kid-on-kid-murderous-violence, is justice.

lovejusticeTwo of the main characters, Katniss and Gale, have been deeply aware since an early age that injustice rules their lives. Their fathers died in a mine explosion. While their mothers are doing the best they can,  each has had to take on responsibility beyond their years to keep food on the table. Their childhoods were sacrificed because the government sees them as expendable.

Once in the arena, another main character, Peeta, declares he will not play the government’s game. He will preserve justice within himself. He nearly dies following that decision while leading predatory contestants away from Katniss and helping her to escape when she was trapped.

The camp I want to attend would  have a section on food foraging and survival skills. And archery. Because at some level I think  everyone wants to be Katniss. But if I were to organize a Hunger Games camp I would emphasize the need to be just in order to bring about justice in our world. We would talk about regional crops and food justice, bullying, institutional racism, and team building with people who are “other” than us.

I think the deeper story in The Hunger Games can be summed up by Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Marketing Christianity

I attended a marking conference last week for my Real Job. It was amazing and I cannot say enough good things about Vocus, their marketing cloud suite of services, or their fantastic line up of speakers and training. It was all good – and so was the food.

photo (2)

Just a sample of what I learned at the Demand Success 2013 Vocus marketing conference.

In most things patterns repeat. The pattern in marketing, as defined by repeated themes during this conference, boils down to three words: Authenticity, Connection and Helpfulness.

Still buzzing from the conference I ran those three words past my mom. She kind of snorted a little, more like a humph, and said, “A lot of Christians could use that marketing advice.”

Whoa.

This is not a twice-burned atheist with a secular agenda who sees Christians as the stumbling block to utopia. This is a woman whose core definition is her Christianity. Jesus is her personal savior, friend and guide in this life. My mother lives, breathes and walks out her faith every day. She is one of the few people I know who has earned the right to set other Christians straight (God knows she’s corrected my course more than once…)

I had been so caught up in the intended application of the conference – how to help your business thrive by creating Authentic, Helpful Connections with customers – that I completely missed the spiritual application.

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candle stick; and it gives light to everyone in the house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

~ Jesus, Matthew 5:14-16

Let’s break that last verse down into its Authentic, Helpful and Connective parts.

Authentic: Letting your light shine

Who are you? Have you ever stopped to think that light only escapes through weakness? Lamp shades are fabric or paper, glass is fragile, and candles are the riskiest of all – so easy to extinguish with a puff of air.

Authenticity means not being afraid to let people know that you function only because Christ gives you strength. And that sometimes you struggle. And that sometimes you don’t even know why, but you’re hanging on anyway because you know that even if it never does make sense God has promised He will work everything out in the end.

Christian authenticity is admitting that no-one has all the answers and sometimes the best you can do is just be, breathe, and share a shoulder.

Helpful: Doing good works

There is a crusty old maxim in Christians circles, “he’s so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good.” These are the people who think they are doing you a favor by saying, “I’ll pray for you,” when what you really need is just $10 for gas to get you through to payday.

Don’t be that guy.

Yes. Pray. Absolutely. But don’t use prayer as an excuse to avoid being someones answer to prayer.

Connection: God in heaven

This is the reason we’re not teleported to heaven in a rainbow of Star Trek sparkles the very moment we accept Jesus as savior. We remain in this messy, painful, screwed up world to point the next person to The Reason we are able to be authentically helpful. Because we sure couldn’t do it on our own strength.

Look. I know this is scary. The people I met last week are very influential, very smart, and very secular. They are now a part of my social media circle and it’s quite possible this post will show up in their streams. The thought of pushing the “publish” button makes me feel more than a little jittery. (It’s not the caffeine – I’ve only had one cup.)

But then I think about the people who have stepped into my life, light and strength shining through their weak spots. The help I have been freely given. The God in heaven shown to me – who has Himself stepped down to lift me up. And I know I must.

This is me, authentically afraid you won’t like my message, offering the best help I can give through a blog interface, pointing to God who gives me courage to tell the truth I have come to understand.

A Fictional Question of Faith: Iron Druid Review

I came across a really interesting statement on the status of religion in Western culture the other day, from what may be

Book cover of Hounded

Hounded, book one of the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne

an unexpected source – the urban fantasy novel Hounded: The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne.

Don’t scoff. There is no better barometer of a culture than its fiction. Fiction is where authors are most free to write the truth because they can safely put it in someone else’s mouth. (However, as Salmon Rushdie can attest, sometimes even that isn’t very safe.)

Hounded is exactly the sort of fiction I enjoy reading. A clever premise, sharp writing, and a seamless mash-up of other incongruous elements make this book and the others in the series a delightful mental escape from a less-than-magical reality. The pure entertainment value of a 2,000-year-old Druid in Phoenix, Arizona who retains vampires as his lawyers and shares a universal disdain for Thor (because Thor is a jerk) cannot be overstated. What I find more intriguing, though, is how through Atticus O’Sullivan, Hearne gives us an extremely long view of Christian faith.

“Most old souls I know think the attraction of modernity rests on clever ideas like indoor plumbing and sunglasses,” Atticus says. “But for me, the true attraction of America is that it’s practically godless.”

In the Iron Druid universe, the power of the world’s pantheons of gods and goddesses comes from faith. If faith in a particular deity falls out of fashion, so does that deity’s ability to affect change in the physical world. Atticus cites Jesus as a prime example of how lack of faith, or lack of a unified faith, works.

“The Christians have such muddled ideas of (Jesus) that he usually can’t take shape beyond the crucifix form, and that isn’t much fun, so he rarely bothers. Mary will appear more often, though and she can do some pretty awesome stuff if she feels like it,” Atticus explains.

As much as I delight in Hearne’s clever writing, that paragraph breaks my heart.

Why can’t we agree on who Jesus is? A simple sounding question. Not so simple to answer. But again, it’s in the fiction. We, as self-called Christians, don’t all believe in the same Jesus because to believe in the real Jesus is to surrender power. It’s painful to believe in a Jesus who calls us to serve the poor, remember the imprisoned, take care of widows and orphans. We’d much rather leave him up there on the cross, denying the miraculous power of resurrection and the immense debt he paid off for us through his sacrifice. We deny his power in our individual lives, and thus in the world at large, through our unwillingness to let go of everything he’s given us – everything that has always been his from the start.

So, instead of Jesus as Aslan, “not tame, but good”, we give the world “weeping Jesus on the cross”, an impotent image if there ever was one.

Shame on us.

Here is my challenge to you today. Reclaim your faith. Give your worries big and small to God, and watch as he responds to your faith with answers you never expected.

My Rebellious Blood

The thing about non-fiction is that you can’t dismiss the truth when it stabs you in the heart.

Warren Petoskey tells a story at a Northern Michigan bonfire, July 1, 2011.

Right now I am completing the website for Dancing My Dream by Warren Petoskey, an elder in the Odawa and Lakotah tribes. It should go live in a few weeks. Warren writes with great passion and compassion about his experiences as the most American of minorities, the native who has had to ask permission to use the land his ancestors once worshiped and worked freely.

Reading Warren’s book and other writings, researching historical photos and building these web pages has ripped off a scab I didn’t know I had. The romantic image of the noble savage marrying into civilization, like Disney’s Pocahontas, has shattered. My native ancestors cry for justice and my European blood is too ashamed to look back – not too closely, anyway.

I have been asked, especially when I was young with long, straight, dark brown hair, if I was native. Eventually, I began to answer with a laugh, “Yes, but not enough to get me a scholarship.” Curious, isn’t it, that admitting my Scottish, German, Irish and English heritage never required a qualifier.

The print on this 1891 picture says, “Three of Uncle Sam’s Pets. We get rations every 29 days. Our pulse is good. Expressive medium. We put in 60 minutes each hour in our present attitude.” Three Lakota teenage boys in western clothing, sitting near a tree—probably on or near Pine Ridge Reservation.

The greatest thing about Warren is he does not reverse discriminate. His love for all things Native includes us whose blood is so dilute as to be nearly invisible – but still enough to call us back to nature whenever we get the chance.

This is what Warren wrote for the website, and almost exactly what he said to me when I expressed my grief that I cannot legally claim the native status I feel calling me so strongly when I return to the woods, water and hills of Northern Michigan.

“As I have traveled many apologize to me that they were only an eighth Indian or less. I asked them who they felt they were in their heart, admonishing them not to allow anyone to dictate to them.”

I draw great comfort from Warren’s words as I ponder how much of my own native blood came from women who married white men to survive rather than for love. I have come to recognize the Northern Michigan countryside my European ancestors have owned for generations also owns me – a fractional breed daughter of Mother Earth, who draws strength from the hills and seasons, lakes and trees.

My own Christian faith echoes in and fulfills the native beliefs of a kind and generous Creator.

Registering as a Native is unlikely, even after adding up all the diluted parts I have inherited from different branches of my family tree. So I take great comfort in from Warren’s words, that Native is not all about blood, but about blood memory.

Do you have a heart for nature and preserving the Creator’s work? Are you stirred by traditional arts like the flute and drum? Is there peace for you resting quietly around a campfire?

My answers are yes, and my blood is enough.

FEAST is released, contest announced

Merrie Destefano’s sophomore book, FEAST, was sent out into the world this morning. I am marking the release date with a recap of a previous interview. But the real party will be Thursday when I post my review of FEAST and tell you how you can win a signed copy all for yourself.

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Jane: AFTERLIFE (Merrie’s first book) is a fantastic mix of old-school science fiction and older-school pulp noir, set in a near-future New Orleans… FEAST, your upcoming book to be released in June, seems to be a different animal altogether, the teaser copy indicating something more along the lines of vampires and werewolves. How does your faith play out in fantasy like that?

Merrie: Like I mentioned earlier, the faith element is stronger in some stories than others. Obviously my worldview colors what the characters are allowed to do and the conclusions that they make. I think FEAST has a moral quality to it, but the faith element isn’t nearly as strong or as outspoken as it was in AFTERLIFE. Although it’s never mentioned in the book, the premise for this story was found in Proverbs 29:18: “Without vision, the people perish.” In my mind, I changed that to, “Without dreams, the people perish.” So, the paranormal creatures in the book harvest people’s dreams, but if they take too much, the people die. Basically it’s a parallel for how we can’t survive without hope or dreams, and the fact that Satan strives to steal our hope. The creatures in FEAST aren’t bad in themselves, although some of them have base desires that drive them to commit evil acts—just like humans.

Jane: Have you been given any static for writing fiction as a Christian? Have you been surprised by the reactions you’ve observed?

Merrie: Actually, I’ve had a pretty good response, which was a bit surprising. I think everyone brings their worldview to their fiction—sometimes it’s their political views, sometimes views on conservation, sometimes it’s their faith-based views.

Jane: What was your journey to published fiction author like, both “real world” and spiritual?

Merrie: Like every writer/author, there were a number of bumps in the road along the way. I started writing books and short stories in my twenties, then stopped for about fifteen years. Then I wrote, designed and illustrated a series of four gift books that I sold to Thomas Nelson, which was pretty cool, except that this happened right when that publisher merged with Word. As a result, my books got dropped. I got to keep the money—again, very cool—so I was able to stay home for two years and really work on writing books. After that, I got a job as the publisher at The Word For Today, which I believe was totally a God-thing, since my experience up until that point was in graphic design and illustration. At this point, I had worked in publishing for about 15 years, but still, this was my first job as an editor/publisher. I worked there for 3 years, then got laid off. After that, I got a job as the senior editor on Victorian Homes magazine and Romantic Homes magazine. I eventually became the editor of Victorian Homes, the founding editor of Cottages & Bungalow, and a contributing editor of Romantic Homes. But honestly, my heart has always been in books, specifically novels. I just love making up stories. When I got laid off from my position as editor of Victorian Homes, I decided that I was going to focus seriously on becoming a published author. I believe that God answered that prayer. I got laid off in April and my agent sold AFTERLIFE to HarperCollins/Eos in August. Since then I’ve been working full-time as a novelist and a freelance editor.

Jane: Thank you, Merrie, for your time. I know you’ve been busy lately with convention appearances and a myserious new Work In Progress! I can’t wait until the day we don’t have to do interviews via e-mail and can have real coffee in real time in person.

Merrie: Jane, thank you so much for inviting me on your blog today! All your questions were great. And I wish you the best in your writing!

Merrie’s books are Afterlife: The Resurrection Chronicles at HarperCollins Eos and Feast: Harvest of Dreams, available today from Harper Voyager. Her website is http://www.merriedestefano.com/. You can read her blog at http://merrie-destefano.blogspot.com/.