With the release of her sophomore novel, The Edge of Grace, author Christa Allan returns for an interview at Random Jottings. Christa doesn’t write about the “safe” things in our modern society. In her debut novel, Walking On Broken Glass, she dealt with alcoholism. This time, it’s the trauma experienced by a widowed single mother whose brother cancels his wedding and leaves for a vacation in Mexico…with another man.
RM: Christa, please tell my readers a bit about why you’ve chosen these subjects for your novel.
CA: Both of these subjects originated in personal experiences. I am a recovering alcoholic and, by the grace of God, I’ve been sober for 24 years now. Like Leah in Walking on Broken Glass, I did admit myself to a treatment center. And, like Leah, did so days after being confronted by a friend. So, the reviews that slam me for not understanding alcoholism or recovery crack me up. One of the reasons I wrote the novel was to show that all alcoholics are not strewn over doorsteps or blocking gutters (I live in New Orleans; that’s, unfortunately, typical in the French Quarter). They’re the people we sit next to in church, or stand behind in the grocery check-out line, or cheer with at our children’s games. While the novel is not-as some think-a memoir or thinly veiled autobiography, I did have to reach back into a past that I’ve been blessed not to recreate to channel Leah.
As for The Edge of Grace, over a decade ago, my brother-my only sibling-told me he was gay. The news fractured our relationship, but the truth of it is I was the one with the hammer. It took years, too many years, for me to realize that placing the word “gay” in front of the word “brother” did not change the substance of the person I’d known and loved all my life. He is my brother, and I don’t define him by his sexual orientation. In fact, he doesn’t define me by mine either! When my brother’s partner of over fifteen years was attacked in the French Quarter, that was my motivation for getting serious about the novel. The Edge of Grace grew out of those experiences. I wanted other families to realize that they weren’t alone, and that what God wants most, from all of us, is to love.
RM: I’d imagine that it wasn’t easy finding either an agent or a publisher for novels like yours. Tell us about your writing journey in that regard.
CA: Both Rachelle Gardner, the agent for these two novels, and Barbara Scott, the editor at Abingdon Press acquiring them, championed these works. I truly see God’s hand in bringing us together. Eight or nine publishing houses turned down Walking on Broken Glass and, on the heels of that, Abingdon Press started their fiction line and sought new voices. And-no kidding-just as Rachelle and I were having a phone conversation about the direction of the still unplaced The Edge of Grace, we both received an email from Barbara that it was on its way to committee, and she felt strongly it would pass.
So much of this business is subjective, which is why I believe if your voice is strong and you’ve grasped the essentials of storytelling, your writing will find a home.
RM: In Edge of Grace, the protagonist is a widowed single mother who is eking out a living as a caterer. I gained five pounds just reading about the various foods in the book. Why did you pick that occupation for her, and is there something in your background that contributed to it?
CA: I grew up in New Orleans, still live a half-hour away, and we equate food with love…without apology. Over breakfast, we’re talking about what we want for lunch, during lunch we discuss dinner. We don’t care what a restaurant looks like on the outside as long as the food on the inside rocks our world. And don’t go looking for the holy trinity of New Orleans in church. It’s kept in the refrigerator: equal parts onion, celery, and green pepper.
So, that’s my background. I wanted Caryn to pursue a business that allowed her to be home with her son. Catering allowed her opportunities to move beyond the mundane, to explore and express herself creatively. And, it provided me a legitimate excuse to browse menus!
RM: When you’re not slaving away at the computer, you’re a teacher. Tell us a bit about those experiences, if you would.
CA: Hmmm…I think that’s a book waiting to happen! For 23 years, I’ve taught English in public high schools in Louisiana. Contrary to what some believe, not all public high schools are breeding grounds for future convicts, drug dealers, or minimum wage workers! In fact, I happen to teach in one of the more affluent communities where I live, which-ironically-means many of my students are too unaware of the world beyond their luxury cars and gated homes.
I teach American Literature, both regular and honors, and Advanced Placement English Language and Composition to approximately 125-150 juniors. Four years ago, I received my National Board Certification. In addition to teaching, I’m the English Department Chairperson, I sponsor the National Honor Society, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and co-sponsor the Junior Class.
The pressure, though, for high scores is relentless and exhausting. Imagine being told you have to treat thirty patients at once every hour, and none of them are allowed to die—ever. Then, there are the “helicopter” parents, the ones who persist in hovering over their teens, protecting them from consequences. Many students try to schedule themselves out of my classes because they know I won’t tolerate mediocrity, I insist on their being responsible, and I don’t apologize for challenging them to become better citizens of the universe. The ones who don’t eventually come to realize that I’m passionate about learning, enthusiastic about their futures, and a wee bit on the quirky side!
My students also keep me from being too enamored with myself! When they learn that I’ve written books, their response is generally, “Real books? Like the ones in a bookstore?”
RM: And…hard to say this…you’re a rabid New Orleans Saints fan. Don’t you think that talking trash via Twitter might alienate your readers (not to mention your other author friends who are, for example, Dallas Cowboys fans)?
CA: Ah, Richard, you know I’m just not feeling the football love here. It might amuse you to know that I spend almost every LSU and Saints football game alternately pacing around the den, screaming at the television, and texting my children and my brother about the score (or lack thereof). Twitter trash talk about football is what endears me to you!
RM: What’s next on your writing agenda?
CA: I have a three-book contract with Abingdon for releases in 2012 and 2013. Writing the sequel to WOBG is something I’d like to tackle within the next year. And, soon, I hope to be able to announce more!
RM: And, as I always ask, any last words for readers and writers out there?
CA: Thank you, to all the readers who turn the pages of my books, recommend them, and encourage me. I feel tremendously blessed.
As for writers, I continue to learn so much from those who generously share themselves, their successes and their challenges. Some days I wonder if we’ll be the ones at the second coming asking Jesus if we can just finish “this one sentence” before the final, final deadline!
Christa, thanks for joining us here. You were right in the prior interview when you said that if there’s an elephant in the room, you’ll find it. Thanks for not ignoring the unpopular (and sometimes unlovely) things we encounter every day in our Christian walk.