“The Sacramental Acts of God in Our World” – An Interview with Catholic Writer Christine Sunderland
Most Recent Book: Hana-lani
Education: Bachelors of Arts, English Literature, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA
Current Employment: Managing Editor, The American Church Union.
Profile: Christine Thomas Sunderland (1947- ), the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and came of age in the tumultuous Vietnam war years. Her inspirational novels, set in the present day, reflect the larger questions of our world today: What is civilization? Why is our past important? How do we understand where we are going? How does God act sacramentally among us in time? What is the nature of the Church and the architecture of belief? Her award-winning trilogy – Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance, reflects on the history of Christianity through stories set in the present day in Italy, France, and England respectively. Her award-winning fourth novel, Hana-lani, concerns the nature of love, family, and tradition, and is set in Hawaii. Her fifth novel, The Magdalene Mystery, about the quest for the true Mary Magdalene of Holy Scripture, set in Rome and Provence, is due to be released in June, 2013. Christine lives in Northern California with her husband and two incredible cats.
List of Books Published:
Pilgrimage (Oaktara, 2007)
Offerings (Oaktara, 2009)
Inheritance (Oaktara, 2009)
Hana-lani (Oaktara, 2010)
The Magdalene Mystery (Oaktara, 2013, to be released in June)
Author Website: www.ChristineSunderland.com
Author Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/christinesunderland?ref=tn_tnmn
Author Twitter Account: https://twitter.com/Chrisunderland
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Favorite Poem: “Pied Beauty” by Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Favorite Novel: The Children of Men, P. D. James
Favorite Movie: The Gospel of John (2003)
Favorite Painting: The “Trinity” Icon by Andrei Rublev
Favorite Piece of Music: Handel’s Messiah
Favorite Song: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” by Lesbia Scott
Favorite Place to Be: Home.
Favorite Meal: Baked salmon.
Favorite Cocktail: Vodka Martini, dry
Last Book You Read: Shadows and Images by Meriol Trevor
Last Movie You Saw: Brideshead Revisited
Last Trip You Took: Rome-Paris-London, April/May 2013
Last Non-literary Feat You Accomplished: Surviving airport security on last trip.
CatholicFiction.net: Why do you write?
Christine Sunderland: I write because it is a satisfying way of expressing how I see the world. I believe at this time in my life it is what I am meant to do, and I enjoy moving words around on a page, reaching and searching for the right phrase, choosing themes, constructing plot and character. It is a great adventure.
CF: What first inspired you to become a writer?
CS: Over the last thirty years I’ve traveled a great deal with my husband to Europe. My travel journals grew into my trilogy of novels set in Western Europe with a plot that linked my meditations. I was particularly struck by the history of Christianity as seen in the great shrines and cathedrals in Italy, France, and England. It was a wonderful learning experience, to connect the dots of my faith as an Anglo-Catholic Christian and to express this in writing, through the development of plot and character. I never intended to write novels. They grew from these travels and my developing prayer and Eucharistic life, seeking God’s will.
CF: If you were a critic writing about your own books, how would you describe the defining characteristic of your writing style?
CS: Serious, literary but traditional, in both syntax and structure. I love Dickens and Austen, but my style is not like either, probably not as spare as Austen and not as complex as Dickens. I have no desire to write like Hemingway or Fitzgerald although they have their moments of brilliance and incredible metaphor. I shy away from fragments, have a horror of exclamation points and italics-for-thoughts. An editor said my sentences were too long, and wondered if I read the Psalms. I said yes, twice daily.
CF: Is there a favorite place you have to write?
CS: I write wherever I am and whenever I have the time. We continue to travel, so I carry my laptop and write and edit in airports and hotels. I am busy at home with church and family, so writing is something I steal time to enjoy… it is always a pleasure. I write a weekly blog at home (Sundays) and more often on trips as a travel journal. I have a home office with walls of icons that smile upon me and hundreds of books that teeter on shelves. Often my cat sits in my lap which is definitely a challenge as I type.
CF: What is your cure for writer’s block?
CS: Stop writing and fill the mind with good writing. I don’t think I have ever experienced writer’s block, per se. But if I have nothing to say, then it might be better to do something else with my time? I write because the words are spilling out of me and it’s a relief to let them spill. Generally, I can’t keep up with the ideas that flood my little brain. C.S. Lewis said he stopped writing novels when the “pictures left him.” I will too. I read a great deal, history as well as fiction, works by good writers, a healthy diet for the imagination and for hearing the rhythm, the cadence, of words and phrasing as they dance through the white space of the page.
CF: What is your cure for procrastination?
CS: Sitting down and doing the work. I’m not much of a procrastinator either. There seems to be so little time given to each of us and so much to say and do. I may tend to be a workaholic, but I take time out for family, and midweek and the celebration of Sunday Mass. I enjoy teaching the children at church, which is a nice break from the laptop and living inside my head.
CF: Describe in your own words what the “Catholic imagination” is – or what it means to be a “Catholic writer.”
CS: The Catholic imagination, I believe, is the ability to speak to the sacramental acts of God in our world, the nature of love and suffering, the great arc of creation and the place of man in the cosmos, the redeeming and salvific acts of Christ in our lives and in history. These things may not be overt in the written work birthed by such a vision, but must form the background of plot and character. And there must be hope – hope in a future where God through Christ triumphs, good wins out over evil. There should be nothing nihilistic or despairing unless there is a counterpoint of belief and hope. The Catholic imagination overcomes tragedy with the action of grace in our world. There is a divine authority that makes sense of our lives, as revealed in Scripture, in the Commandments, in the witness and traditions of the Church, through our Apostolic Succession.
CF: What three writers – alive or dead – would you like to invite to dinner? Why?
CS: Meriol Trevor, Piers Paul Read, Michael D. O’Brien to hear them tell the stories of their writing Shadows and Images, The Death of a Pope, and Father Elijah respectively. Also, P.D. James and how she came to write The Children of Men.
CF: What would you serve them – appetizer, main course, dessert and drink? Why?
CS: Something simple. Wine. Beef Bourguignon sounds good. And a chocolate dessert.
CF: What is the “best thing” about being a writer? And what do you enjoy most?
CS: Writing itself. Forming words and phrases, developing plot and character, expressing a theme through this exquisite formula. Sharing my passions about the current culture, in particular the sexualization and secularization of our world.
CF: What is your book about?
CS: Hana-lani is a love story about a city girl, Meredith Campbell, who journeys to rural Maui where her plane crashes and she is forced to recover in the home of a wise grandmother, a sprightly child, and a grieving professor writing a history of ethics.
CF: What inspired you to write this story in the first place?
CS: My inspiration came from the town of Hana, Maui, and our many visits there, falling in love with the Hawaiian culture, landscape, faith and family life. The role of nature – its violence and beauty – has long intrigued me. How does man fit into this natural world of tsunamis, volcanoes, and hurricanes? Hawaii seemed the perfect setting in which to explore this question, as well as questions dealing with family values and definitions of love.
CF: Did you hold onto the idea for a long time before giving it shape, or did it come together in a flash?
CS: I played with the idea through the years, and when I decided I wanted to write a more “popular” novel, fast-paced with exotic love scenes and plane crashes, I thought this setting might work. So I created the conflict, using two opposing visions of man – the selfish versus the sacrificial, the pagan versus the Christian. In the process I was able to explore the nature of love and its corollaries – beauty, truth, sex, marriage, body and soul. It took about a year to actually write.
CF: All fiction comes from a mix of past influences and impressions—things we’ve lived, seen, imagined, or read. Can you talk about some of the elements that came together to shape this particular fiction?
CS: Since I wanted Hana-lani to have a modern pace, be a page-turner, I tried to read as many recently published novels as possible to see how plot was structured, how characters were developed. I went to a number of writing workshops – Squaw Valley and the Maui Writers Retreat – to hone my craft. I asked friends and family to read early manuscripts to get their reactions. I also worked with a local editor who teaches at U.C. Berkeley. All of this advice and exposure was invaluable.
CF: What did you learn about yourself in writing this book?
CS: That I could actually craft a novel from the beginning. My earlier trilogy had emerged from travel journals. Hana-lani was planned and plotted before anything was written. I drew a map of where I wanted to go, a blueprint of what I wanted to build.
CF: What did you have to do to prepare for this book in terms of research?
CS: I studied Hawaiian myths and history. It was also of course necessary to spend more time in Hana to make sure the trade winds were described just right…. I also revisited T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for my professorial character is researching Eliot.
CF: How does this book differ from either a) previous books you’ve written or b) other writing work you’ve accomplished?
CS: Hana-lani is quite different from the trilogy, for it’s much faster-paced, and the Christian themes are subdued, present in a more symbolic form than as part of the text. I’ve written some children’s stories for our church and children’s curricula. Recently I’ve edited The Faith, Instructions on the Christian Faith, by Raymond Raynes (1903-1958), a new edition, comprising Father Raynes’s Denver retreat addresses (originally edited by Nicholas Mosley, 1923- ). I am currently editing for The American Church Union as well, The Life of Raymond Raynes by Nicholas Mosley.
CF: What was the most challenging aspect – a character, a plot point, etc. – of writing this book?
CS: It was difficult at first to get inside Meredith’s skin, for she is a kind of sex-in-the-city girl. She’s a character very unlike myself, but I see people like her all the time and wonder what makes them tick. It was tempting to create a shallow character when writing about a shallow character, simply one-dimensional, to not make her fully human. The Maui Writers Retreat helped me develop her more fully, at least I hope so, and my Berkeley editor helped as well.
CF: Do you have any characters that came particularly easily to you?
CS: The easiest was old Nani-lei, a wise grandmother figure. Somehow, her viewpoint reflected mine and her stories and actions just poured from me naturally. I guess I’m becoming an old woman too, although I’m not so sure how wise (!)
CF: Creating a work of fiction is a spiritual journey in itself. Can you talk about your own spiritual life—realizations, doubts, crises, etc.—that came during the writing of this work?
CS: I wrote Hana-lani at a time when my first three novels had been rejected by publishers and agents hundreds of times. I gave up on the Christian trilogy, and tried a different approach, to write a more “secular” novel. When Hana-lani was completed, a publisher expressed interest in my first novel, Pilgrimage, which I had placed on an online agency site, Writers Edge, many years previous. So as I wrote Hana-lani I did it for the sheer fun of it, the joy of expressing my Christian vision of culture, only this time without strong religious texts. In the end I came to see that God answers prayers, just not when I expect him to. It’s all about patience and being faithful, doing the daily chores –
The trivial round, the common task
Will furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves – a road
To bring us daily nearer God. (John Keble)
CF: Name one good habit you do have as a writer and would like to continue to cultivate.
CS: My weekly blog.
CF: Name one bad habit you have as a writer that you would like to break.
CS: Didacticism/preaching perhaps. Pride for sure.
CF: Name one good habit you would like to have as a writer and do not have at the moment.
CS: Better vocabulary and metaphors.
CF: What is the most discouraging aspect of being a writer?
CS: Stiff neck.
CF: If given the chance, what fictional world would you like to inhabit?
CS: My own.
CF: What one project do you daydream about accomplishing as a writer – your magnum opus?
CS: The next novel, whatever it might be…
CF: If you could no longer work with words, what medium would you work in to create art?
CS: Teaching young children to sing songs to God.
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