Liz Curtis Higgs with Debra Murphy at Advance 2006:
CBP: This is Liz Curtis Higgs with her latest book, Grace in Thine Eyes. Liz you were just saying…
Liz: I was bragging on my publisher. I’ve been with them since 1997 and they’re just the best of the best. They’re so gracious and they care about what story God has put on your heart.
CBP: So they’re trusting God.
Liz: They really do. They don’t come to me and say, “Look. This is what is selling so we need you to do something like this.” They say, “Liz, what is God calling you to do? It is great. I am so blessed by that.
CBP: Would you share your Christian testimony with us?
Liz: Oh, yes! It’s my favorite thing to do. In a funny kind of way, all my books share my Christian testimony. This is my 23rd book, and in some way or another, there’s always a message of grace. All of my books have been about grace because so much grace was shown to me. It thrills me to have the word grace in the title of my latest book.
Unlike Davina, my heroine in Grace in Thine Eyes, who was an innocent young girl; I probably was innocent at about 5 years old. I quickly became a bad girl in my teen years. I went to church, but I didn’t really have any kind of relationship going on with God. Church was still a place you went to on Sunday for about an hour. So it was really easy to leave behind, if it has no meaning then it’s easy to discount. I stopped going to church on Sunday, started going to bars on Saturday night. It got really bad for me, Debra.
CBP: I have heard that you were in radio. Can you tell us about that?
Liz: Yes, I was in radio. In 1980 I was working in Detroit, Michigan as a disc jockey. The station was WWWW, which was perfect because even stoned I could remember where I worked. Howard Stern did the morning show there, live and in person. This was all long before the network. I did the adjacent show. And when I got off the air, Howard said, “Liz, you have got to clean up your act.” So when Howard Stern tells you that you have to clean up your act, your act is obviously a problem. It wasn’t my on air act, my show, that was the problem. I wasn’t a shock-jock. Howard was wild on the air, straight off the air. I was fairly straight, rock-and-roll mamma on the air, but I was a wild woman off the air. I did the stuff off the air that Howard only talked about. He was genuinely concerned about me, thinking I wasn’t going to live another day with the lifestyle, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, a different man every night, cocaine, and stuff like that.
CBP: You have live to tell about it.
Liz: God is good. He’s very faithful. He let me hit bottom, because I was a hit-bottom girl. Some of us are smarter than that. Sliding down we say, “I’m sliding down. I need to stop this and change.” But I didn’t take anybody’s word for it until I hit bottom and then I had nowhere else. God graciously sent into my life two people who just had come to know Jesus. They were those brand new Christians that are just like puppies, they’re so excited. They took one look at me and said, “Liz project.” And they loved me into the kingdom. They just loved me, they didn’t judge me, didn’t tell me I was a bad girl, they just kept telling me how much they loved me and how much God loved me.
CBP: What did you see in them?
Liz: I saw the transformation of their lives. They were transparent, not perfect. They were brand-new Christians. They were still wet from the baptistery as it were. They were still working out their salvation with fear and trembling. Clearly there was transformation in these two people because they came from the same background I did, they weren’t living like that now, so obviously something had happened to them.
CBP: Then what happened?
Liz: I moved forward in faith, and gave my life to the Lord in February of 1982. I’m coming up on my 24th birthday. I love saying that. It’s a good two dozen years with Jesus. I started teaching almost right away, and my church was crazy enough to let me. But I felt such a calling to open God’s Word, and teach other women, because I was discovering stuff in there every day. When I wasn’t on the radio, my face was in the Word. I was so hungry. Everybody knows this, that when you learn and you learn and you learn, finally you have to teach because you have to do something with it.
CBP: So at first you used what you learned by teaching.
Liz: Yes, I taught the Bible. I especially loved the stories of the women of the Bible. Never imagining that 20 years down the pike I would be writing books about the bad girls of the Bible and then writing novels about the women of the Bible, moved into another time and place. God is great – He wastes nothing. Even my bad girl past, He has found a way to use that in my writing.
CBP: What else prepared you for writing?
Liz: Well, first of all, I wrote my first novel when I was ten. It was horrible. I have it—I could prove it to you.
CBP: But writing a novel at ten years old, that is fabulous.
Liz: Yes, people were pretty amazed that a ten-year-old would be able to sit down and handwrite a full-length novel. It was long. Like I said, it was bad, but it was a story. And I wrote a bunch of them all through my teen years. Kind of mysteries, romances, with great titles, like Him. Don’t you love that? But I had so much fun with that. And then, I moved into my bad girl life and left my writing behind.
CBP: What were you looking for?
Liz: Love. Always looking for love, in all the wrong places, in all the wrong men. That’s why when you find love from God, when you realize it’s forever and it’s never going to change, it can be counted on, it doesn’t move, it’s pretty breathtaking.
CBP: In your novels, you share love. You did a trilogy set in Scotland and now your latest book is also set in Scotland. Tell us about this book.
Liz: Yes, we did a trilogy. Grace in Thine Eyes is a stand-alone. I am so sensitive to the readers who say they don’t want to wait a year. It is a long wait between books because I only write one book a year. They just need a book they can grab and finish in a weekend and have closure.
The beauty of Grace in Thine Eyes is that it is sort of like the next-generation. We had three books about a single family, the McKees, and a baby is born at the very end of Whence Came a Prince. This is that baby girl’s story. She is seventeen now. It is the next-generation. For people who read the trilogy, they’re excited because they get to visit with these old friends and meet this daughter grown up. For the people who haven’t read those at all, I promise you, I wrote this with such care as to not make any reference back to the previous stuff. There will be no point at which you scratch your head and say, “I feel like I’ve missed something here.” Not at all, it’s not there.
A new reader can dive into this single title, Grace in Thine Eyes and not feel like they have missed anything. If they feel like it they can back up and read the series and not be thrown off.
CBP: How many times did you have to go to Scotland for research?
Liz: Oh, ‘have to go’ would be stretching it. ‘Love to go’ is the truth. I just got back from my eighth trip to Scotland. I pick up new things, nuances, every time. It is so helpful to me to have walked the streets that my heroine and heroes walk, to see the Scottish sky in the month that I’m writing in, to know what the smells and colors, and all of that. I could get it from books, sort of. But nothing like doing it yourself. I take a little microcassette recorder and talk to myself constantly walking around the street. I take tons of pictures. Then I go home, print out the photos and spread them around me. I transcribe this into my manuscript. I have a pewter plate to remind me of what they would have eaten off of so I can touch it and feel it and remember what that must have been like. I have Scottish heather that I smell, I know that sounds insane, but just trust me on this. Of course, I drink tea, and I have candles burning, because of course they didn’t have electricity. All of that just keeps me on my toes. I love to do it.
CBP: Your stories are based on biblical character. What about that research?
Liz: Tons and tons of research must be done first. Grace in Thine Eyes is based on Dinah and is taken from Genesis chapter 34.
CBP: I felt I was getting an education with the word you used, the Scottish words, the Scottish phrases that you include, incredible words.
Liz: You see, I love to teach people, just a little. There is the vocabulary that’s the Scots language, which is what I use. It is an actual language unto itself. There is also the accent, the brogue, how they pronounce words. The brogue is special. I also try and use the musicality of the Scots, which is so wonderful. I have a glossary in the back, so I never leave my readers saying, “What was that?”
CBP: Most of the words, you knew what they meant because of the context. If we don’t get a word we can look it up.
Liz: Yes it is a backup, you won’t be left wondering. My goal was to describe and to put a word in context so that you knew, or I chose a Scots word that sounds so much like what it is, so immediately you’d figure it out or I’d define it. Like I’d say, “There was a fine mist falling, which Duncan used to call smirr.” It’s a fine, fine rain, that you almost wouldn’t use your windshield wipers for, but afterwhile you’d say, “I can’t see a thing.” It’s the finest mist, but it is moving. They have more names for rain, unbelievable names for rain. A real downpour is called a plash shower.
CBP: Could you describe the characters in your book?
Liz: Oh yes. Well, there’s Davina, daughter of Jaime and Leana. She’s seventeen, she’s small, really small. It’s always fun to write characters that are the opposite of you. You know what I mean? She’s teeny tiny, barely 5’ tall, she has bright red, not carrot red, but rust red hair, you can see on the cover. We had to choose very carefully. I’ve already got her hair in mind, so we had to find a model with that hair, and we did.
She is very petite in all her features—small hands, small feet, she’s just small. Little pointy ears. So very fairy-like. She’s also mute, she does not speak. I could not have chosen a more difficult situation to have the hard story of Dinah from the Bible, and a heroine who doesn’t speak. But what’s interesting is, all my editors said this, she’s so confident in who she is that you never feel sorry for her. And that was very important to me. Nobody wants to read a story where you feel sorry for the heroine from the first page to the last. You do have a desire to protect her, because she’s young, she’s small and she’s innocent. She’s truly innocent.
CBP: And she has three brothers, what are special about them?
Liz: Ian is, the readers of the other books will remember him, he’s now a grown up young man, and very kind. He’s one of our heroes of the book. But then there are the other two, Will and Sandy are her younger brothers. They’re very pugnacious; they’re very quick to anger. They’re twins, identical twins. Although it is interesting that one of them emerged as the spokesperson for the two. I didn’t know that going in. But like from the first page, Will was the strong guy, like ‘strong-willed’ I suppose, and Sandy was more gentle, softer. Even their names say it.
CBP: And Sandy’s name is a nickname?
Liz: Alexander, but in Scotland Alexander is a dandy almost right away.
CBP: The other characters?
Liz: The parents: Leana and Jaime, again. They are characters from the other books. I’ll caution you, that they are now parents. In Whence Came a Prince, they were young people falling in love, and they were at a different place. Now, seventeen years have gone by, she has just turned forty, Jaime’s forty-three, and they’ve raised three kids into their teenage years. As we all know, those of us with teenagers, this will change you. Leana is as she ever was, the most godly woman I’ve ever had the joy of writing about. She is this tranquil spirit, no matter how much of a tempest is going on around her. She’s an amazing woman of God. The story needs that, because there’s a lot of anger and violence and ‘oh my goodness’ going on around her, and yet she manages to maintain her peace in Christ.
CBP: And if opposites attract, her husband…
Liz: Yeah. There’s Jaime, who’s a bit more hot headed. He has not matured into his fatherhood as well. And, of course, I based it on the Jacob of the Bible, and Jacob made a fairly lousy father. If we follow his story all through Genesis, he failed his children a lot. Jaime is more heroic than Jacob of the Bible, I couldn’t bear to make him quite so careless and thoughtless. But he still disappoints us as a father, frankly. And so there’s Davina, and she’s mute, but she’s a fiddler, so she expresses herself through music. She’s an artist, so she expresses herself on paper. So we have a couple of other ways for her to talk to us. Plus, I’m in her point-of-view a lot, so she’s able speak to us directly as the reader. So we’re in her heart and in her mind.
CBP: Any other main characters?
Liz: I suppose we have to talk about Summerled is an incredibly complex guy. He’s on the one hand, so likeable. He’s young, talented, he too is a musician, handsome, tall, highlander, he’s bright, he’s in some ways he has some really good qualities. Unfortunately, he’s also a rake. He confesses at one point to our Davina that he has made a career out of seducing women. He assures her that those things are over, but we’re not so sure they’re over. He is a bad boy, and yet, as many bad boys are, there’s a certain likeability. You want them to change. You want them to become different. Alas and alack, if you know the biblical story, you know the brothers don’t give him time to change. They take their revenge on a very difficult situation. Summerled is an interesting, tragic character before all is said and done.
CBP: What about Graham?
Liz: Graham Walker. Graham was a delight. He was the unexpected character. Every book, has somebody who walks on the set, and you go, “Hi. Do I know you?” This happens to me on every book. Literally, a character walks onto a scene and speaks, and as soon as they open their mouth you go, “This is not some little side player. Who are you?” So I began to explore who this Graham Walker was. So he spoke to Davina, and obviously was drawn to her in some way, and I thought, “But you don’t fit into this story—who are you?” Of course, as it all turns out, he hugely fits into the story. And I love that. That’s when I know God’s in charge of my writing and I’m not, is when He brings me what I need before I know I need it as a fiction writer.
He does that all the time, but Graham is the best example in this book of the unexpected hero. As I say, this book desperately needed moral compasses, because people were spinning so out of control. Leana is certainly our female moral compass, and Graham is the male moral compass.
CBP: What else can you share about the book, without giving the story away?
Liz: Something tragic happens with Davina. It involves Summerled, I’ve already told you he’s a rake, so we could probably figure out. And anyway, if you know the story of Dinah, you know that’s coming. So our innocent girl loses her innocence.
Now, let me be honest with you. I thought this book would be about her losing her innocence, therefore being shamed in her culture, and needing forgiveness from God to move on with her life. Well, guess what I found in the writing. She had not erred in the first place, she was a victim to his violence. Right? So guess who really needs grace in this story? The violator. Oh my goodness. I hit that about mid-book, and I just literally backed away from the computer when it hit me. I said, “Lord, do you mean to tell me that this story,” I get choked up remembering it, “this story is going to be about a young innocent woman, coming to a place where she can forgive a man who has stolen from her, in that culture, in 1808, all a woman had to offer was her innocence.” And he has stolen this from her, and God is asking her to forgive this man? “Oh, Father God, how am I going to write this?” Well, He’s good and faithful and He shows me how to write it.
So it becomes an opportunity for all of us, and I wrote this very much from personal experience, I’ll spare you details on that. But, you know, there were people I had to forgive in my own life. I was never in a situation like Davina, but in my own earliest experiences with men, I was very innocent, naïve, like she was. And was taken advantage of. And so I had to draw from that, very painful, but in some ways healing to write from that. And then I had to press on and work with Davina through this process. Because, of course, when you forgive another person, you, too, are set free. You’re completely set free from whatever they’ve done to you, you’ve released in the forgiveness itself.
And, of course, it’s transforming for them to be forgiven when they know they don’t deserve it. It just transforms. It was an extraordinary learning opportunity for me as a writer. So I can only pray that my readers will go with me on that.
CBP: Where are we going next?
Liz: The next books will be in Scotland. They will be set in 1745, an amazing time period in Scotland. Bonnie Prince Charley…
CBP: So we’re going to back up?
Liz: Yes, we’re going to back up, so it’s a whole different family. Those of the years of the Jacobite Rebellion, which is like our Civil War, it’s that big. It was hugely affective in Scottish history. So tons of books on the 1745, The ’45 they call it, tons of books. I’ve just gotten back from there, and I’ll go back in September. All that will come. I can tell you the first title of the first book: Here Burns My Candle. From the Shakespeare quote: “Here burns my candle, here I die.” Don’t worry, she doesn’t die.
I’m very excited about it. And once again, it’s based on a woman of the Bible, but my lips are sealed on the rest of it until I get closer.
CBP: I can only imagine all the emotion that goes through the actual writing process, and then when it’s finished…
Liz: It’s a bit post-partum feeling.
CBP: Thank you, Liz! You have an incredible gift that God has given you that you share with us.