Chat with Eldonna Edwards

During 2018, I won an autographed copy of This I Know by Eldonna Edwards. On a bright sunny day last summer, I lounged on my deck and dove into the words. Once I began, I could not stop. I was pulled in and entranced by Grace, who became one of my favorite characters of the year. In celebration of Eldonna’s new book coming out in a couple of weeks, Clover Blue, (see below for pre-order details) and because I loved This I Know so much, I invited Eldonna in for a chat.

 

J: Eldonna, what is something readers might want to know about you.

E: I often go by Ellie because it’s easier to write on a coffee cup. I’ve been in love with writing since I penned my first poem at the age of nine where I grew up in West Michigan, the fifth of seven children headed by a rural preacher. I currently teach memoir and fiction at our local writer’s conference. Fun fact: in 2010 I donated a kidney to a complete stranger. My story was featured in a documentary (Perfect Strangers) and I wrote a memoir about my experience (LOST IN TRANSPLANTATION). I had this idea that I wanted to change someone’s life. Turned out the life it changed the most was mine.

J: Wow. When you set out to change a life you don’t go half-way. 

J: Tell the readers about This I Know.

E: THIS I KNOW a luminous coming-of-age story set in a small Midwest town in the late 1960s and helmed by an unforgettable young protagonist—compassionate, uncannily wise Grace. Eleven-year-old Grace Carter has a talent for hiding things. She’s had plenty of practice, burying thoughts and feelings that might anger her strict Evangelical pastor father, and concealing the deep intuition she carries inside. The Knowing, as Grace calls it, offers glimpses of people’s pasts and futures. It enables her to see into the depth of her mother’s sadness, and even allows Grace to talk to Isaac, her twin brother who died at birth. To her wise, loving Aunt Pearl, The Knowing is a family gift; to her daddy, it’s close to witchcraft. When her mother lapses into deep depression after bringing a new baby home, Grace will face a life-changing choice—ignore her gift and become the obedient daughter her father demands, or find the courage to make herself heard, even if it means standing apart.

J: I was intrigued by, and could relate to, the gift Grace had because I personally have experienced a bit of intuition. During my time practicing Energy Medicine, I trained myself to feel/intuit the emotions of my clients. I couldn’t imagine having a gift like that at such a young age.

J: If you don’t write full-time, what kind of job do you have, or have you had in the past? Does it play any role in your stories?

E: Although I no longer practice, as a massage therapist for over two decades, I came to understand that there’s a lot we don’t understand about the connection between our bodies/minds and the surrounding world. What I do know is that keeping an open mind to the unknowable is paramount to a broader experience of this life. I decided early on that I wanted to explore the “what ifs” of someone who maintains a deep intuition—what we sometimes call the gift of sight—and how those uncanny abilities might challenge the belief system of a conservative family and/or community. Thus, THIS I KNOW was born.

J: I love playing “what if” when I’m writing.

J: What genre(s) do you write in? Is there one you’d like to try?

E: I love coming-of-age stories for adults because it’s a way to remember those formative years between the freedom of innocence and the gradual recognition of the larger world around us. I’m a huge fan of Southern fiction but don’t feel like I have the born-cred to pull it off. However I do sometimes blend southern characters into my stories.

J: I also love Southern fiction and write a bit of it myself. Growing up in south Texas gives me born-cred, as you say, just a slightly different flavor of it.

J: Do you write to music/create play lists?

E: I prefer absolute quiet when I’m writing, other than the sounds of nature. I will admit to occasionally casting my characters in a film and choosing an imaginary soundtrack.

J: I’ve also found that I can’t write to music that has words. The words make me think of other stories and interfere, sending me off down the rabbit trail of something new.

 J: What do you nosh on (snacks/drinks) while writing?

E: I rarely eat when I’m in the writing groove. Sometimes I’ll get so deeply into the zone that I’ll come out the other end ravenous because I missed a couple of meals.

J: I wish that were true of me (I say while stuffing Reese’s Pieces in my mouth).

J: What are you currently reading?

E: I’m reading THE GIRLS by Emma Cline. The story is a sort of re-telling of the Manson murders. I chose it because my next book features a young boy raised in a spiritual commune who doesn’t know who his parents are. It seemed like a good comp title for my book due to the time period and cult-ish themes and I’m really enjoying it. I’d love it if Emma would blurb my next book!

J: I haven’t read that one but you made me go take a look. It sounds fascinating.

J: How do you prefer to interact with your fans/readers?

E: I’m on Twitter and Instagram but I much prefer Facebook because I like the slower conversations that are more about connection and less about the latest greatest thing or snarky retorts. But my favorite way to interact with readers is to Skype into book club discussions!

J: Facebook is also my preferred way to interact. Doing a Skype with a book club sounds like fun!

 J: What inspired THIS I KNOW?

E: We live in divisive times where people seem very attached to their opinions, including political and religious beliefs. In THIS I KNOW I’ve juxtaposed a dogmatic rural pastor against a daughter whose extraordinary abilities challenge his core belief system. Will love for his child overrule his seemingly-inflexible tenets? Are people capable of encompassing new ideas, especially as they pertain to one’s spiritual identity?

J: I truly felt for Grace having to hide this part of herself and am always a bit taken aback when I encounter people as inflexible as her father.

 J: What was the hardest part of writing THIS I KNOW? The best part?

E: Hands down, writing the sexual assault was the hardest. I am fortunate not to have experienced this in my lifetime, but people very close to me have. I cried through the whole scene and it shook me to my core. I had to let the book sit for a while before I could come back to it. The scene I most enjoyed writing is when Grace’s sisters convince her to dress up as a fortune teller and charge the neighborhood kids to get their questions answered. What child doesn’t love turning a refrigerator box into a store, a space-ship or a fortune-teller booth? This scene allowed me delve into our insecurities that begin at an early age. Do my parents love me? Will I find my soul mate? Will I overcome these awkward years to enjoy a successful life?

J: And you handled all of these scenes so well. Your ability to capture emotions is a gift.

 J: What are the most common misconceptions about THIS I KNOW?

E: 1. People assume that THIS I KNOW is an autobiography. Although steeped in my memorable upbringing as a preacher’s daughter, THIS I KNOW mostly comes from my overactive imagination. 2. Readers sometimes assume THIS I KNOW is a religious book or the opposite, an anti-religious book. It is neither. THIS I KNOW is about a young girl who hungers for approval, most especially from her father. It’s about loss, about sorrow, about forgiveness and the joy of finally embracing one’s uniqueness.

J: I can see how readers might make those assumptions given your upbringing and the fact that you’ve also written a memoir about your kidney donation experience.

 J: What is the most special thing a reader has said about THIS I KNOW?

E: My very first netgalley review was from a librarian. It made me cry. She wrote, “Once in a while you read a book that just takes your breath away with its beauty and truth. This I Know is such a book. This is one of the most beautiful coming of age stories I’ve ever read, and it will stay with me for a long, long time.”

J: That’s exactly how it made me feel.

 J: Favorite quote from THIS I KNOW?

E: The human struggle—especially for young girls—to fit in and to embrace one’s unique gifts is very real. Our identity as individuals is shaped by the support (or lack of support) from family and peers. In THIS I KNOW Reverend Carter emphatically refuses to accept his daughter’s clairvoyance and forbids Grace to explore her uncanny intuition. Her mother is emotionally absent due to debilitating depression. Grace’s community vacillates between fear and exploitation of Grace’s abilities. This leaves Grace to seek friendship and support from a homeless man, a bohemian family and, most especially, her deceased twin, with whom she carries on deep conversations throughout her life. Which brings me to my favorite quote: “It takes a lot of energy to try to be what you aren’t, but even more not to be what you are.” Grace Carter, age 13.

J: I remember reading that line and sitting back thinking how true and powerful it is.

J: What are you working on now?

E: My next book, Clover Blue (May, 2019 and available on pre-order now) is another coming-of-age story set under the redwoods of a northern California commune in the 1960’s/70’s. Like most spiritually-based collectives of the era, Saffron Freedom Community’s imagined utopia inevitably mirrors the dysfunctional society its members hoped to escape. Ultimately, CLOVER BLUE is a study in the differences between family and tribe and whether love is earned or deserved. Questions of interest to other authors.

J: I read the description of Clover Blue and have already put it on my TBR list. Check out the trailer for it here.

J: Do you believe in writer’s block?

E: I don’t believe in writer’s block so much as writer’s burnout. I think sometimes we try too hard to push the river and expect the words to just flow. My cure is to stay put and write crap until I hit the mother lode, or walk away and come back when I’m refreshed and rested. Eventually something worth keeping will land on the page.

J: That’s kind of how I look at it also. Sometimes walking away is the best option.

J: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad ones?

E: I’ve heard you should never read your reviews but I can’t help myself. It’s a tic. I love learning how my book(s) spoke to different readers in different ways. I look at critical reviews through an objective lens. Quite often it’s just a matter of my book just not being a good fit for a particular reader. Once in a while, someone will write a nasty review that reeks of meanness. I try to imagine what it must be like to be that person, holding all that ugliness inside, and then I don’t feel so bad.

J: That is an awesome technique. I sometimes do that with people acting like jerks on the road or driving too slow. I try to invent a story to explain why they might be behaving that way.

 J: Do you hide secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

E: I hid every one of my sibling’s names in THIS I KNOW. All but one of them (I’m looking at you, David) noticed!

J:How do you select names for your characters?

E: I love coming up with names! In THIS I KNOW Rev. Carter gives each of his children Bible names—Joy, Hope, Grace, and Chastity—but none of them fit. His wife names the last baby before he has a chance to screw it up again. In my next book, CLOVER BLUE, the members of the Saffron Freedom Community all change their names when they join. Goji is the leader, Wave is a former surfer, Coyote takes late night walks, Willow is a flexible yogi, Doobie is a pothead, etc. I had a lot of fun coming up with “hippie” names for my tribe.

J: Coming up with character names is fun. Mine often come to me already named, but in my current work in progress, The Things We Do Not Speak Of, the main character is a Somali refugee and her family. I searched for names that had particular meanings for each character to reflect how I thought of them.

J: You can learn more about Eldonna and her work at the following:

J: Thank you, Eldonna, for spending time with us.

Eldonna will be at a book signing at Barnes & Noble in San Luis Obispo on June 2, 2019 at 2 p.m., and at the Carlsbad, CA library on Sunday, June 9 at 2 p/m on a 4-author panel.

J: And last but not least, some glowing words about Eldonna and her work. 

“In a pitch-perfect voice, Edwards captures Grace’s struggles to understand the pain of those around her as she deals with her own, especially her desire to be loved unconditionally by her father. Grace displays a wellspring of compassion—for the homeless man who sometimes squats in her family’s barn, for families who have lost loved ones and especially for her mama, whom she desperately wants back from the grips of depression. Like Grace, Edwards is the daughter of a preacher, and this write-what-you-know aspect lends This I Know a depth of feeling and honesty. Edwards’ conversational style and the first-person diaristic tone create an enveloping warmth that draws the reader in.” —Bookpage

“If you’re looking for good, old-fashioned storytelling, one that will pull you in from the beginning and never let go, this is the book for you.” —Historical Novels Society

“In this outstanding debut, Eldonna Edwards has created an enchanting, lovable narrator by the name of Grace Carter, who shares all she sees about her world and beyond. Rendered in a voice at once singular and exquisite and with an old soul sense of wisdom, I was captivated by this story of a girl and her unique gift, her love of family, the pain of loss, the sting of indifference, and the simple joy of acceptance, but most of all by Grace, and her purity of heart.” —Donna Everhart, author of The Education of Dixie Dupree

“A heartfelt and beautifully crafted coming-of-age debut about a gifted, eleven-year-old girl attempting to find her place in a confusing world. This I Know shines, due in large part to narrator Grace, one of the most authentic and charming young characters I’ve come across in a long time. Don’t miss this one.” —Lesley Kagen, New York Times bestselling author of The Mutual Admiration Society

“Simply magical writing. Eldonna Edwards is a true storyteller. She tossed me straight into her book and there I stayed until the last word on the last page.” —Cathy Lamb, author of No Place I’d Rather Be

“Eldonna Edwards has crafted a compelling allegorical tale about the fear of otherness in this coming-of-age tale. Readers of all ages will find an unlikely hero in 11-year-old Grace Marie Carter—who was born with a type of clairvoyance she calls the “Knowing”—as she bravely forges her own path in a world that is constantly trying to silence her voice.” —Amy Impellizzeri, author of The Truth About Thea

“A remarkable, inspiring story about clairvoyance, faith, and opening your heart—and mind—to the truth. I will not soon forget Grace Carter, the young preacher’s daughter with a unique interpretation of the world. Her kindness, her resilience, and her gloriously quirky voice have me shouting to readers everywhere, ‘I love this book!’” —Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of The Perfect Son


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