by C.J. Darlington
Liz Curtis Higgs Interview
"Story moves us like nothing else. It sneaks past our defenses and makes a beeline to the heart. You can resist rhetoric, but it's harder to fight narrative." -- Liz Curtis Higgs
Liz Curtis Higgs has been telling tales since she attempted her first novel–handwritten in a marble notebook–at the tender age of ten. Successful careers in broadcasting, public speaking, nonfiction writing, and children’s books honed Liz’s storytelling talents, bringing her back to her first love–writing fiction–at the turn of the 21st century.
A gifted speaker, Liz Curtis Higgs has presented more than 1,500 inspirational programs for audiences in all 50 United States as well as Germany, England, Canada, Ecuador, France, and Scotland. In 1995, Liz received the highest award in professional speaking, the “Council of Peers Award for Excellence,” becoming one of only forty women in the world named to the CPAE-Speaker Hall of Fame by the National Speakers Association.
On the personal side, Liz is married to Bill Higgs, Ph.D., who serves as Director of Operations for her speaking and writing office. Liz and Bill share their 19th-century farmhouse in Kentucky with their two teenagers, Matt and Lilly, and too many cats.
C.J.: Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?
Liz: Like most writers, I inhaled books when I was young, reading late into the night with a flashlight under the bedcovers. I started with Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, then grew into more substantial children’s fiction—Newbery Medal winners like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and A Wrinkle in Time. Young as I was, I heard the truth woven through Madeleine L’Engle’s compelling prose and I was hooked. By age ten, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller. Life threw a few obstacles in my path, of course…
As a self-professed “Former Bad Girl”, you came to know Christ through the influence of a Christian couple working at the same radio station as you. What was it that first drew you to them and ultimately to the Lord?
Initially I was captivated by all the outward stuff. They were attractive, talented, successful, well read and well traveled, and funny. Oh, did we laugh! They also loved me right where I was—immersed in a sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll lifestyle—and shared their newfound faith without condemning my hedonism. They never suggested I needed to clean up my act. Instead, they told me that God believed in me, God loved me, and God had a plan for me. That God died so I might live with him forever. That his grace was sufficient, that the cross was enough, not matter what I’d foolishly done. Truly, the love of God is irresistible. Finally, I surrendered. That was 25 years ago and still his grace overwhelms me on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Grace is a huge theme in your writing. Do you purposely weave the concept into your stories, or do you find it comes about organically?
All 25 of my books to date have forgiveness and mercy at the heart of them, no matter the genre. I never tire of sharing the good news! My two books released in 2006—Grace in Thine Eyes and Embrace Grace—address the subject of grace in a very intentional way, through historical fiction and through contemporary nonfiction.
Why do you write fiction?
I love writing fiction as much as I love teaching the Bible. (Oh! Did she say that?) Yes, I did. And for good reason. Story was born in the heart of God. He is the Storyteller, the author of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and the author of life (Acts 3:15). Story moves us like nothing else. It sneaks past our defenses and makes a beeline to the heart. You can resist rhetoric, but it’s harder to fight narrative. Story draws you in; setting helps you feel at home; characters make you care what happens. Without realizing it, you’re turning pages, no longer aware of the chair you’re sitting in or the weather outside your window. Story has taken you somewhere else—a place where God can transform you.
You’ve become known for your love of Scotland and the Scottish people. Share with us two things that might surprise us about Scotland.
Even after nine trips there, I’m still taken by how small a country it is. The whole of Scotland is about the size of Indiana. Yet it takes far longer than you expect to get from one corner of the country to the other, thanks to all those narrow roads winding through the hills and glens. I’m always delighted when I come over a rise on a country road and find the ruins of a fourteenth-century castle or a ring of ancient standing stones on display, without any garish signage to point the way or any fencing to keep you out. You can simply drive up, climb all over history, and quietly leave. An amazing place.
Ever had any unusual or embarrassing moments while performing research?
More than I care to admit, especially the embarrassing ones. Several are described in detail in my Scottish armchair travel guide, My Heart’s in the Lowlands, including the time I rolled down a mountain in the Glen of Loch Trool. Okay, not all the way down the mountain, but I did take a tumble, and I did have a brand-new camera around my neck…
Are there any specific tips or methods you use to keep from coming across as preachy and yet still share Christian truths in your writing?
I keep two readers in mind while I write: one is the woman I was just before I came alive in Christ. A woman who’s been around the bend a few times, had her heart broken once too often, and lives in fear that she’s gone too far, done too much. The other is a Christian woman who’s known the Lord for a long time, yet still harbors unanswered questions and a boatload of guilt. Neither of those women wants a sermon—she’s wants the truth, spoken in love.
What is the hardest part about writing for you?
Staying in my chair. Staying on task. Not getting distracted. Beginnings and endings are the worst for me—every time, for every book. It never seems to get easier. I agonize over first and last lines especially. The only book in which those lines were somewhat easier to write was Fair Is the Rose, the middle book in my Scottish trilogy, simply because the story picked up where it left off in book one and continued beyond the last page into book three. Far less pressure to say “hello” and “good-bye” to the reader.
As a nonfiction and fiction writer, do you ever find it challenging to switch between the two?
I’ve always said the only thing fiction and nonfiction have in common are punctuation! Otherwise, they’re completely different. Nonfiction is very compartmentalized, like fitting the pieces of a puzzle together. You begin with the big picture—your theme or overall message—then decide what pieces will be needed to capture all that’s in your heart. You can work on a chapter at a time, a section at a time, even a paragraph at a time. It’s easy to move things around in cut-and-paste fashion until it all fits together. And you are writing in your own voice—in first person, as it were—speaking directly to the reader.
But fiction is like watercolor painting with words. I have only a vague idea at the start of things how the finished product is going to look. You begin with a small dab of paint in the corner and start moving across the canvas. Each brushstroke affects the next as the picture slowly emerges. Only in the final chapters, and sometimes not until the second draft, do I grasp the theme of the novel. It’s all about the characters for me. They determine the direction of the plot. As the artist, my goal is to disappear. To have no voice of my own and simply give my characters voices so they can tell their story. Like I said, fiction is a completely different process from nonfiction. Scary and exhilarating and full of discovery. I love both, but I’ll bet you can guess which is my favorite…
What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?
A big, sweeping historical novel set in the first century before Christ. Just thinking about how Creation must have groaned in anticipation of his birth and how societies and governments went on about their business, unaware that the Lord’s time on earth was drawing near. Imagine it! But, oh, the research. It overwhelms me, really. Perhaps someday, if the Lord leads, I’ll go for it. For now, I’m thrilled to be immersed in all things Scottish and have many more stories to tell there.
What motivates you to get out of bed and head to your keyboard?
My love for the Lord, my passion for his Word, and a genuine affection for my readers, who are so good to me. I answer every letter and email, then keep them to read again on days when getting to the keyboard is harder than usual.
Some Christian authors don’t believe there even should be the label “Christian fiction”. What do you think?
My preference would be to see novels written by Christians shelved alphabetically by author among the general fiction, if only to reach a broader readership. Having said that, I’d hate to think of my readers not being able to find my novels, which are undeniably Christian. With so much bookselling online now, perhaps it’s not as much of an issue. I sense the lines are blurring, and the labels fading into the background.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
Actually, I’m glad I didn’t know then some of the things I know now! I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it is to get published. I’m glad I didn’t know how much writing requires of us emotionally, not to mention the sheer hours at the computer. I’m glad I didn’t know this was a business. I thought I was just teaching lessons and telling stories!
What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?
I’ve been very blessed to have a steadily growing career, but in some ways, each book has its own low point. One day (or two or seven days) you are convinced the project will never be finished, that you will have to give back your advance money, and that no one will ever ask you to write anything ever again. Typical writer angst. You can only write your way out of such a funk. One bright hour the words start flowing again, the pages start stacking up, and you realize this could be a book after all.
Do you ever see yourself retiring?
From public speaking, yes, but not from writing. As long as my health and imagination hold up, as long as I have a readership and a publisher interested in my books, I’ll keep writing with joy and abandon.
What is your number one piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Be patient (nobody, including me, wants to hear that!) as you sow seeds in good soil—building relationships, honing your craft, learning from others. And attend one good writers conference a year.
Can you give us a sneak peek into your next historical series?
We’re off to Edinburgh and the Borders in 1745, an earlier time period than my previous Lowlands of Scotland series, and a thrilling one, with Bonnie Prince Charlie on the scene. Once again I’ll draw from the Old Testament for the framework of the story. Here Burns My Candle is the first novel in the series, due in stores March 2009.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
I won a Most Improved Bowler trophy from my bank’s bowling league in 1974. I still have my bright, red bowling ball with Ruthie engraved on it. That’s the other thing people might be surprised to know: my name growing up was Ruth Elizabeth. I’m still Ruthie to my family, but Lizzie to my dearest friends.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Reading novels. Watching movies. Hanging out with my grown children. Traveling, especially overseas. Visiting museums. Strolling through gardens. Taking photos.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
An English muffin with Lemon Curd—a delectable British treat made of butter, lemon, and sugar—sent to me by a generous reader in Northern Ireland.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Diet Sunkist Orange, Swiss cheese, apples.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
An extra-hot Venti Chai Tea Latte made with skim milk.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
Parachuting out of an airplane. Trust me, this will remain unchecked!
When was the last time you cried?
Last Friday evening when my daughter came down the stairs in her prom gown, looking like the fairy princess that she is. I couldn’t let her see my tears, of course, but they were there.
Three words that best describe you:
Fun-loving. Hard-working. Perfectionist.
You’re in line at Barnes & Noble and are buying something from the book, music, and movie sections. What’s in your basket?
Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel, Abundance. The soundtrack for Notes on a Scandal. The DVD of A Painted Veil.
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
Soundtracks always live in my writing office CD player. Right now it’s the soundtrack for Perfume. Other recent favorites are The Good German and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
Bless you for taking time to visit with me!
C.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.