Focus on Fiction is pleased to feature
Deb first tried her hand at novel writing at the age of twelve. But after accidentally including airplanes in a story set in the 1700s, she tore up her manuscript and vowed never to write historical fiction again. More than twenty-five years passed before she dared to attempt another book, but readers everywhere are thankful she did! Deb is now the award-winning author of novels such as A Vow to Cherish, Beneath a Southern Sky, After the Rains, A Scarlet Cord, and others. She and her husband, illustrator and author Ken Raney, have four children and make their home in Kansas.
Focus: Deb, thank you for joining us at Focus on Fiction! Can you begin by telling our readers how many books you've had published since the start of your writing career?
Deborah Raney: I am currently working on my ninth novel. I also have two non-fiction books, and several novellas, short stories, and essays in print.
Focus: Your latest book, A Nest of Sparrows, is coming out this month. Would you give us a brief synopsis of the plot, and tell us why this book is particularly special to you?
Deborah Raney: A Nest of Sparrows tells the story of Wade Sullivan who is left to care for his fiancée's three small children after tragedy strikes. When Social Services gets involved in the children's lives, Wade finds his heart is stirred by a compassionate social worker. This book was quite a challenge to research since SRS office procedure varies from state to state and county to county, and laws are constantly changing. But after some frustrating moments, I found that the "system" ended up providing some wonderful conflict and dilemmas for my plot! This often seems to be the case: real life provides some of my best plot twists.
Focus: It seems like June has been an exciting month for you so far. Besides the release of A Nest of Sparrows with Waterbrook Press, your novella, Playing by Heart, was nominated for a Christy award! Can you tell us a little about that story, and how you feel about being nominated for the award?
Deborah Raney: Playing by Heart was a delight to write. I came up with the idea when I spent a couple weeks writing at a bed and breakfast near our home.
The story is about a young novelist, Madeline Houser, who is offered the chance to work on her latest story in the sanctuary of a charming bed-and-breakfast while her kitchen is being remodeled. This arrangement is coordinated by Madeline's friend, Ginny, a spry lady in her eighties.
Arthur Tyler, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast is a 40-year-old widower, and an English professor at a nearby college. Because he's not home during the day, he and Madeline don't initially meet, but they begin a wonderful correspondence through the daily notes they leave each other. Unfortunately, Arthur and Madeline each believe the other to be Ginny's eighty-year-old friend, and finding love with each other is the furthest thing from their minds!
The plot took some humorous turns and ended up being almost a romantic comedy. It was such a fun departure from my more serious novels, and I'm thrilled that it's a finalist for a Christy Award. I could have never imagined when I read Catherine Marshall's wonderful novel Christy as a 12-year-old, that I'd someday be a nominee for the award named after that book. I'm honored beyond words.
Focus: One of the things I enjoy most about your stories is their uniqueness. Every story you've written--from A Vow to Cherish, which was made into a feature film, to A Scarlet Cord, which has been nominated for a Golden Quill Award--addresses a difficult life issue from a fresh, unusual perspective. Where do you get your inspiration for these amazing stories?
Deborah Raney: When I was working on my first novel, I feared I would never again come up with another good idea for a book. But I am learning to find ideas and inspiration literally everywhere I look. I might read a news account, an advice column, or even an obituary that leaves me wondering about the outcome of a situation. The story is always found behind one simple question: "What if…?" Now I have a file stuffed so full of ideas that even if I live to be one hundred, I'll never have time to write them all down!
Focus: Is it true that within four months of completing your first manuscript, you were offered not one, but three contracts for it? How normal would you say that is for a beginning writer?:)
Deborah Raney: I'm almost embarrassed to admit that it is true, because it is pretty unusual, and I don't want to offer false hope to aspiring writers. However, in spite of such a quick route to publication, that manuscript still got rejected by almost 20 publishers before I ever signed a contract. And I have other stories that took years to find a home with a publisher (and a couple that may never see publication). I think I had a very unique story idea that landed on editors' desks at just the right time. And of course as a Christian, I believe there was something much larger at work--God's perfect timing at play in my life.
Focus: Can you tell us what you feel is the greatest message with which God has entrusted you, and why you've chosen fiction as the medium for that message?
Deborah Raney: Without having consciously set out to weave this theme into my books, no matter where I start, each story seems to eventually wind back around to this message: The God of the universe is a Redeemer--of people and of circumstances. It's certainly true in my own life. Time and time again, I've seen God take sorrow and heartache and frustration in my life and ultimately use it for good.
Focus: When your readers have turned the last page of one of your stories, and closed the covers of the book, what response do you hope to have stirred in their hearts?
Deborah Raney: First of all, I hope readers of my books will have a greater sense of God at work in their own lives. I hope they'll feel they know the Lord's nature better, and as a result, will feel closer to Him. I hope they'll know the hope we have in this messed up world because of God's grace and mercy. And finally, I hope they will feel they have been entertained in a way that is uplifting and worthwhile.
Focus: How have you been changed as a person through your writing career?
Deborah Raney: Writing (and especially researching) a novel is sometimes like an intense Bible study. Because it is very important to me to portray biblical truth accurately, I often find myself searching the scriptures for the wisdom my characters need to solve their problem or dilemma. It's amazing how many times I learn new truths about God's nature right along with my characters. Probably more often though, I'm allowing my characters to demonstrate lessons I've recently learned myself.
Focus: Your oldest son, Tarl, is not just your website designer, he's also one of the reasons you began writing in the first place.
Deborah Raney: That's right. Though I've dreamed of writing a book ever since I was a young girl, the impetus to finally get started came about a year before Tarl started college. I was privileged to be a stay-at-home mom for most of my children's growing up years, but we made a lot of financial sacrifices in order for that to happen. Consequently, I always knew I'd need to go back to work to help pay for their college educations. What I didn't know was that the Lord would surprise us with another baby when our three older kids were 14, 10 and 8. This meant when I should have been returning to work, I had a three-year-old I desperately wanted to stay home with. I hoped I might be able to earn enough money from writing to be able to work from home and still help with college. God gave me that desire of my heart in the most incredible way when my very first contract paid an advance that was to-the-penny the amount we'd just been told four years of room, board and tuition would cost at the college of Tarl's choice! I still get a little choked up thinking of that specific, amazing answer to prayer.
Focus: Your children's names, Tarl, Tobi Anne, Trey, and Tavia, are fascinating, and…unusual! Is there a family secret behind the all-T's name theme?
Deborah Raney: This question makes me smile. The simple secret behind my children's names is that growing up as one of dozens of Debbies in my school, I was determined that my kids would have much more interesting and unique names. We got started on the T names and it kind of snowballed. I think it's neat, since my maiden name begins with a T. Though I love each of my children's unusual names, I'm not sure we'd have gone with all the Ts had we known we'd end up with four kids. They still laugh at us as we stutter through the roll call.
Focus: Your stories are often graced with a heart-moving love story and an endearing lead male character. You've had thirty years of your own romance with a man you call your greatest cheerleader. Would you mind telling us a little about your love story?
Deborah Raney: My husband is the model for all my heroes. We met in 1973 just a few months after each of us had made a commitment to live our lives for Jesus Christ. We'd each just ended a longtime dating relationship with someone who didn't share our faith. However, we'd already enrolled in different colleges at the time we met, so we spent that first year getting to know each other through daily letters and occasional phone calls and visits. We married the following August and moved to New York a few months later so Ken could pursue a career in illustration. Two years later, when I discovered I was pregnant (in spite of having been told I might never be able to have children!) we moved back to Kansas to raise our children near our close-knit extended families. Ken is one of the most romantic men I know--a man who understands romance in the most sacred sense of the word, who loves me and our four children with a selfless, godly love that is pretty rare in this day and age. He's not perfect, but then neither am I. No one makes me laugh like he can, no one continues to surprise me year after year the way he does, no one knows me as well and loves me anyway. He's definitely a keeper.
Focus: What kind of advice do you think your husband would give to other spouses of writers?
Deborah Raney: Because Ken is an artist with a creative "weirdness" that is similar to that of a writer, I think he understands me better than many writers' spouses. He's always been patient with my idiosyncrasies--things like needing to get up in the middle of the night to write a scene while it's fresh in my mind, taking notes on restaurant napkins or grocery receipts, always turning real life stories into "what if" brainstorming… In fact, Ken often helps me come up with ideas for my books. I think he'd advise other writers' spouses to realize that this is part of the writer's giftedness and to allow a little leeway in that department. I truly could not continue to write without Ken's constant support and encouragement.
Focus: Besides posting comments on your website, how can your readers and fans support you?
Deborah Raney: Probably the very best things readers can do to support an author they enjoy is to talk up the books among their friends, post reviews online at sites like amazon.com, christianbook.com, barnesandnoble.com, etc., recommend authors to their church and public libraries, and let the author and/or publisher know when you've enjoyed a particular book.
Focus: Is there anything else you would like your readers to know?
Deborah Raney: I don't think most readers realize how deeply we writers value your letters and emails. Our editor's job is to point out our mistakes and problem areas, professional reviews can sometimes be painful or even cruel, and we tend to hear silence as criticism. But a single letter from a reader can provide the encouragement that makes the difference between wanting to quit this job and rediscovering the utter joy of being a writer.