Today I have the privilege of interviewing author Penelope J. Stokes, with whom I share the privilege of graduating from an amazing university, Mississippi University for Women (affectionately known as "the W") in Columbus, Mississippi. Ms. Stokes is the author of over ten published novels. She has also written some non-fiction. I wrote about her books here, here, and here.
What is your hometown, when were you at the W and to what organizations did you belong while there?
A lot of my own W experience is reflected in Delta Belles. I suppose I could best describe myself as a literary nerd with a social conscience. I didn’t do social clubs, for example, but was active in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements (this was the sixties and early seventies, remember). I had a small circle of close friends, and I truly loved the community spirit at the W during those years. It had the feel of a small boarding school, with the benefits of a rich history and a progressive and comprehensive liberal arts education.
Why did you choose to attend MUW?
I actually considered the W initially because I rather hero-worshipped a summer camp counselor who was a W girl. When I investigated further, of course, that turned out to be only a minor factor in my decision—more of a catalyst to get me to consider the W. I didn’t want to go to a large university, and I wanted a college where literature and the arts were valued. That’s not always the case, even with a so-called “liberal arts” college. The English department at the W was, in those years, outstanding—and still is. My major professors had an enormous impact upon me, both intellectually and personally. They taught me to write, to think critically, and to believe in myself and my gifts. And their legacy continues to be reflected in my work and in my life.
When we make a decision or choose a path in life, we never know where it will lead or how it will turn out. Looking back, I realize that my choice to go to the W was probably one of the smartest decisions I ever made.
Your biography says that you always wanted to be a writer, and your degrees are in English. However, you note that it took a long time for your dream to come true. Are you one of those people who wrote several books before trying to sell one, or did you write one and try to sell it? Tell us how you moved from being an English professor to being a writer.
Yes, it was a family joke from the time I was about four that I would grow up to live in an attic and become a writer. Well, I don’t exactly live in an attic (can’t stand the heat), and yes, it did take a very long time for me to come around to writing as a career. I stayed in college for as long as humanly possible, just because I loved literature and learning—and of course, because I was avoiding getting a real job. During my doctoral work I began teaching and discovered a way to make a living without tying myself to a 9-to-5 schedule. It was the best of both worlds.
I still wanted to write, however—I even proposed a creative project (a novel or collection of short stories) for my doctoral dissertation. My committee turned me down, saying that it was impossible to earn a living as a writer. So I turned in a more traditional research project, jumped through the hoops, and got my Ph.D.
Later, after years teaching reluctant students how to write, I began taking on freelance editing projects, which grew into a full time editing business and connected me with a great many editors and publishers. By the time I wrote my first novel (actually a trilogy), I already knew a lot of people who were willing to give me a chance, because they knew the quality of my writing and editing.
It’s not a story that anyone else could emulate—not the kind of “this is how I did it, and you can, too” model. But it does demonstrate that the universe opens up to us when we’re ready.
I want to stress, too, that I didn’t wait to write until some publisher was ready to offer me a contract. I wrote (and still write) all the time: journaling, poetry, character sketches, ideas, liturgies for church, hymn lyrics, all kinds of stuff. Most of it will never be published, nor should it. But that’s what a writer does. A writer writes.
What advice would you give to a college student who said that s/he wants to be a writer? What about a person who has an established career but has always wanted to be a writer?
My advice would be the same for both: Read. Write. Read. Write. Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
And while you’re reading and writing, LIVE. Experience things. Go places. Meet people. Fall in love. Find your truth. Be faithful to your promises. Keep journals. Remember what you see and hear. Be curious. Ask questions. Discover the connections between the internal and external worlds. See metaphors around you. Look for patterns in the universe. Use your pain and your joy and all the little everyday details that most people never notice.
And be patient. Writing is both a calling and a profession. Age doesn’t matter—in fact, both life and writing get richer year by year. As a colleague once told me, “It doesn’t matter how late you get out of the gate if you’ve got a 440 under the hood.”
Tell me about your work with The Editorial Department. If I'm one of those people with a novel in the closet, what can I expect from The Editorial Department, and what, approximately, can I expect to pay for those services?
The Editorial Department (www.editorialdepartment.com) offers a variety of excellent services for writers, and has a widely diverse, competent, and accomplished editorial staff. We offer manuscript evaluation, annotation, and various consultation services for both fiction and nonfiction projects. Go to the website and sleuth around; there’s lots of good free information there, as well as explanations of services, prices, and bios of the editorial staff.
Your early books were published by Christian publishers; your latest books have not been. The mass-market ones I've read (Circle of Grace, Delta Belles) have dealt with characters' faith, something not often seen in mass-market books. However, those two also paint lesbian relationships in a favorable manner, something that is not acceptable to many Christian publishers. Did you set out to write mass-market books, or did you find that Christian publishers would not accept those books?
Just a quick clarification: mass-market refers to the edition of the book, not the publisher. A mass-market novel is the inexpensive small paperback edition you can tuck in your bag (as opposed to a hardcover or trade paperback, which is a larger size with a more durable binding).
If I understand your question, I believe you’re asking about my transition from evangelical Christian publishers to general market publishers. That shift was intentional, not accidental; it came from a conscious decision to broaden my readership base, rather than as a reaction to rejection. I wanted to be able to address issues of diversity from a spiritual perspective, and as you observed, I wasn’t able to do that in a conventional Christian publishing setting.
I originally published in the evangelical markets because a) that’s where I started, and those were the editors and publishers who knew me, and b) because at the time the general market wasn’t doing much with spiritual fiction, so publishing a novel with spiritual content was an uphill climb.
It’s true that my general market novels contain subject matter that would be unacceptable to an evangelical publisher, and some of my early readers have castigated me for abandoning my faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. The spirituality that lies at the center of my life and fiction is faith in a God who is also known as Love, a Divine who embraces all people without regard to race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, economic status, or any of the other artificial barriers that divide us. I really want readers to see that our preconceived notions of God are just that—our notions. That, in Shakespeare’s words, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy [or theology].”
Since your non-fiction books are faith-based, and your fiction, whether published by Christian publishers or secular has a definite faith component, would you please tell us a little about your religious beliefs and affiliations?
“Religious beliefs” would probably be a stretch for me, because I’m convinced that what you say you believe doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you live. I am a Christian not because of some checklist of tenets I accept, but because I seek to follow in the way of Jesus. That is, I seek to live in love and grace, to be vulnerable, to stand up for social justice and peace, to give a name and a voice to the marginalized, to accept people where they are, and to encourage people find their own way to God.
On a daily basis, my goal is to wake up, show up, and engage with the world and the people around me, to let myself be transformed.
Some days I do better than others. It’s a journey.
Do you ever expect to write Christian fiction again?
In the sense of writing evangelical novels that offer answers instead of raising questions? Probably not. But then, even when I was writing for the Christian markets, my novels didn’t fit that mold. I was always pretty much a duck out of water.
One of my favorite reader letters came in response to one of my earlier (and more conventionally Christian) novels. It was from a lesbian Unitarian Buddhist who said, “Thank you for writing a spiritual story that I can connect with.” That letter made me feel as if I’d done my job well.
Delta Belles is set at Mississippi Women's College. W alums see a lot of it there. Were you trying to portray the W or just a generic women's college of that era? Is any resemblance of your characters to real people purely coincidental, or....
If W alums don’t see their Alma Mater in Delta Belles, I’m worried about them.
Seriously, I never really set out to write a book about the W. But those years were so formative for me, and so rich, and so vivid, that I couldn’t leave out the Shattuck Dining Hall experience, or Front Campus, or the Gingko Tree, or the Old Maid’s Gate, or the Kissing Rock, or. . .well, any of it.
And yes, there are some characters in the novel who rose out of my experience at the W. Not major players, but peripheral characters. I won’t tell you which ones. You can probably figure it out, if you’re as old as I am.
You told me that your latest books are set in
. Can you tell me a little bit about them? Does MUW make an appearance? Columbus,M S
Heartbreak Café is the first-person story of Dell Haley, who at the age of fifty is left widowed, broke, and alone. All Dell can do is cook, and so she risks everything to create a little diner that becomes the center for a rather unlikely community of outcasts.
One of those characters is Peach Rondell, a forty-something gone-to-seed beauty queen, who sits in the back booth of the café and writes in her journal. She ultimately becomes the central character in The Book of Peach, the crossover story of Peach and her mother coming to grips with their troubled relationship.
Of all your books, which is your favorite? Which character is your favorite? Why?
That’s like asking which child is your favorite. . . .
I loved writing The Treasure Box simply because it was so different and so much fun. I’m a Star Trek fan, and have long been fascinated by the space/time continuum, and the possibility of multiple futures, depending upon the choices one makes in the present. Those “what ifs” form the foundational concept of The Treasure Box, The Memory Book, and The Wishing Jar.
In the final analysis, I think my favorite book is always the one I’m writing now. That’s where my passion lies, and on a good day, the place I feel most connected to the Holy and to my own inner light.
What can we expect from you in the future?
People ask, “Are you working on a new book?” I’m ALWAYS working on a new book. But I don’t talk about what I’m writing, because talking dilutes the energy of it. If I talk about it, I don’t have to write it.
I’ll just say this: It’s a novel about dreams [the kind we have at night when we sleep], and about how dreams both reveal and transform our inner lives. There’s a power in dreams that goes mostly untapped, a power that can pull back the veil between this world and the next. When that portal is opened, almost anything can happen. . . .
I'd like to thank Penelope for visiting with us today. Any of the book covers shown in this post are clickable links to Amazon and will generate a sales commission should you choose to buy anything from Amazon before leaving the site. Any commissions generated by the sale of Ms. Stokes' books will be donated to Mississippi University for Women.
If any of you are looking for a great small liberal arts college on a beautiful campus, I urge you to consider Mississippi University for Women. You can learn more at their website.