• Release Date: January 30, 2009
  • Publisher: Bethany House
  • Pages: 294

Tender Grace Q & A

How did you develop the initial story idea/plot line for this book?

I wrote Audrey’s story to answer a question that has been nagging me:“How do we go on when someone so dear to us dies?” I’ve been watching my parents, 92 and 83. They’ve been together 63 years, and when I’m home, it’s almost palpable-how will we bear being without each other? I feel like there’s a perpetual leave taking going on, one I participate in myself every time I leave them—hugging them and kissing them and saying how much I love them. Yes, how do we go on? I don’t mean, how do we keep breathing; I mean how to we go on, embracing, appreciating and enjoying the life that’s left?

In addition to my parents’ situation, I have a friend who lost her husband in his late thirties, and two friends who have lost their husbands in their 50’s. I’ll never forget something that happened when my high school friend visited me and a mutual friend a few months after her husband died. She came into the room where the two of us were sitting after we thought she had gone to bed, and she said, “You guys, what am I going to do?” I have no idea what we said. Nothing very helpful, I’m afraid.

There’s also this: my husband and I are at the age that we know the time we have together is limited and that every day is a gift. Every evening that I happened to work on Tender Grace, I would come out of my study so relieved to find my husband in his chair watching a ballgame, alive and well.

I’m sure many novels have attempted to answer the question of how do we go on when someone we love dies, and the answer for some has been, “You don’t.” I can see why some would answer it that way. There are other answers-some helpful, some not so helpful. Tender Grace is my answer.

There’s one other aspect, strange at it may seem, of how I came to this story. I retired last May after teaching 31 years, 28 of them at Ozark Christian College. I loved those years. Loved them. And I was a little afraid to give it up. I had good reasons to do so: I wanted to visit my daughters and grandchildren and my parents more and when I needed to, I wanted to be free to travel with friends and to visit missions in Cambodia, and I wanted to write without waiting to grade stacks of papers. Good reasons to want more freedom. But I was giving up a known and loved quantity for an unknown one. Somehow, Audrey’s story is connected to this. What do you do when you want your old life back, a fear of the future kind of thing. (I suffered a bit of angst when this semester started and I didn’t pick up a student roster, but I’m quite thrilled to come and go as I please, and I am happy I don’t have sets of papers to grade.)

Now about the plot line—I just decided Audrey needed out of that house, way out. So I gave her a place to go and had her take Tom’s Bible with her, specifically the book of John (my favorite). I think the Spirit healed Audrey by her encounters with his World and Word. I laid out her trip, gave her some adventures, and watched the Word do its work. I envisioned her going on up the coast, but when she got to San Francisco, I just thought, well, it’s time to go home. I, and I hope the audience, know she’ll go on up the coast another day.

Did the book involve special research?

I chose Audrey’s route because I know it pretty well. But I haven’t been every place Audrey stopped. I researched a lot of places. For instance, I’ve been to the Gilcrease Museum, but it’s been a long time, so I studied it on line, and even felt the need to talk to them about the statue. I read about the Oklahoma City Memorial because I haven’t been there yet. I called the Amarillo reserve to ask about road runners, etc., which I haven’t really seen, except in a cartoon. I also called the Mission at Capistrano, because that’s one of the places I haven’t been. (I have visited there since I wrote the book and am happy to say what I wrote works. The mission really is so charming.) Anyway, this is the kind of research I did. Not a lot really. But even at that, I had to reel myself in. I had too many facts about places, and I wasn’t writing a travelogue.

What is the underlying theme/message of the book? Is this what you set out to write?

God is near and able. Yes, that’s exactly what I set out to write. It is the theme of my life. It will probably always be, as Thoreau said, my bone to gnaw. You hear it in the sheep Audrey counts: I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; It is I; don’t be afraid; I am with you always; I will never leave you or forsake you.”

What is the take-away message you want readers to receive after reading your book?

What I most want people to take away is the knowledge that God loves them, and that although life can sometimes be terribly difficult, he is near, willing and able to help. He desires to be not only our Lord and Savior, but our friend, the best of friends, a better friend than even Willa.

This isn’t really in the book, I guess, but I wish people could somehow also understand that if Audrey didn’t make it home, because of any number of horrors that are part of living in this fallen world, that ultimately, because of Jesus, she is quite safe.

But there may be other things to take away, too. The oddest thing happened to me after I wrote this. I became more open. By that, I mean, when I was out and about, I spoke to people more often. I didn’t go so far as to bother them, but I became more aware, more willing to engage. It was rather invigorating. I can’t believe my own character did that to me. So maybe readers will take that away as well.

Almost every author puts a little of themselves into their stories-what did you put of yourself into this one? (personality traits, life events/jobs, settings, characters based on people you know, likes/dislikes, etc.)

The setting really is all over the West, but Audrey starts out in Springfield, Missouri (Joplin, MO, Tulsa, Oklahoma). I live in Carl Junction, just outside of Joplin, Springfield is an hour away, and I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, not far from Tulsa. So Audrey begins and ends her journey in my territory. (Nice place to be.)

The characters, including Audrey, are a real combination of people I know. The combination is complete enough that I don’t think anyone would say, there I am, although I have friends dear enough to make me dream up a Willa. But I really don’t know anyone who exclaims like she does.

I find I’m writing a lot about good men, and maybe that’s because there are so many good men in my life, beginning with my husband and father, but I also have wonderful sons-in-law, grandsons (still young), friends, and colleagues.

Audrey is like me in that she has taught English and has an inclination to write. She has a sense of humor, but more subdued than mine. Her language is more formal than my every day language. I do like hamburgers and pizza, and the references to that in the book made me smile. So few women eat that way any more. Oh yes, and I like to dawdle in the mornings, unlike my husband who gets with it.

I stuck in several life events, or versions of life events. That is something I have enjoyed in this book and the ones I’ve been working on. It must be natural to creates scenes that include our life events or ones we’ve observed or heard about. But I’m finding that life events are usually merely the seed for a scene. Before the scene is finished it resembles the real event very little. I rather enjoy that. I enjoy even more just making something up, though I wonder how often that happens without a seed from our observation.

For instance, I made up the whole scene with Helen. Except one time when my granddaughter Mariah was seven or eight, her papa took her and her little brother over to our friend’s house to swim. Later he told me Mariah spent her time on the edge of the pool talking to our friend’s 25-year-old daughter: “So,” she said, “does your husband like his new job?” That grown up child made us laugh, and that’s all I needed to create Helen.

The long scene in the homeless shelter is entirely made up, except when Audrey thinks: I don’t do vomit. I don’t either. The few times our daughters didn’t “make it,” my husband cleaned it up, except once when he was asleep. I had to do it, and like I said in the book, I threw up myself during the whole process. I’d call that a seed. Another seed in that scene is how inept I’ve been at times when I’ve tried to “help.”

I made up the robbery, though I have a friend who was present when a bank was robbed. Very unnerving. On the other hand, my husband does raise tomatoes, but on another hand, I imagined the empty garden. It broke my heart.

Something my editor questioned was what Audrey said when she found Tom-“All is ruined.” Apparently several people couldn’t believe anyone would think such a thing. I would think I would have conjured up any number of scriptures, but one early morning when Tony was fighting a terrible bout of the flu, I found him passed out in our bathroom, eyes wide open, and I truly thought he was dead. My heart stopped. I backed into our room and sat on the side of the bed, and that’s exactly what I thought: “All is ruined.” But thank goodness, before I called 911, I went back in and he moved.

Oh yes, I think I’ll mention this: Audrey prayed what she thought would become her favorite prayer: “I love you, Lord.” It has been mine for a very long time.

As far as jobs, I made Audrey a high school English teacher because I wanted to use the poetry. I started out making her an elementary teacher, but my daughter Leanne, who is an elementary/middle school counselor, said most elementary teachers probably can not quote Tennyson, or call up Wordsworth, Milton, and Arnold as they walk on the beach, or whatever. I wish I could think of a plot for a novel featuring George Herbert’s poems. He and John Donne are my favorites.

What are the setting and time period of your book? Are any real streets, towns, cities, physical structures, or landmarks used? If so, what are they and why did you choose them?

The here and now. I love historical fiction, love it. But starting out, I didn’t need the complication of researching another time-what they wore, what they did, how they sounded. Oh my goodness! I can’t even remember the 1990’s very well. The book is full of real places, of course. Every place Audrey stopped is a real city or town, even Hayes, Kansas, and I happen to know there is a Pizza Hut there. Several places like an IMAX or that Texas Steakhouse or the Oklahoma City Memorial are real places, but several were made up, like the art gallery in Santa Fe and the homeless shelter in San Diego. I chose these cities, towns, and places in general, because most of them are cool places and, of course, she needed places to stop. I kept the map in front of me and any time frames mentioned are pretty accurate.

Are there certain writing techniques (point-of-view choice, tense, flashback, etc.) you used to achieve a specific purpose or effect? If so, what did you use and why?

A unique use of journal, I think. Audrey writes to speak, literally. She actually recreates scenes. I’d love to have a journal like that. She ends up creating for herself a record of her healing and details of events she can tell Tom about some day.

Why is this book/story relevant today?

Death and how we cope with it is timeless. Absolutely timeless. So is our need to know that God is near and that he loves us. And we always have a need to remember that his Word is to be taken very personally.

What do you consider the strengths of your book?

My daughter says she loves a book that reinforces her beliefs or challenges them or causes her to redefine them. I think Tender Grace will give the audience something to mull over. I have written 23 questions for an audience to discuss. My daughter said an audience could read the book in a few days but they could spend a month answering the questions.

Though the book is very serious, there are moments to laugh, or at least smile. I’ve read a good many serious book that haven’t had any humor in them whatsoever. I didn’t mind, but I think having places in a book to laugh is quite nice.

The lines of poetry are lovely, and for some readers, those lines will be a treasure.

The John passages are amazing. I really tried to just use what I thought Audrey would read and comment on at a certain juncture in her journey. Some may not like the references, but for many, they should be helpful and enjoyable for many reasons.

I’ve brought each of these elements into my speaking and non-fiction writing, and audiences have commented on these things above all else. I’m hoping they’ll like these elements in Tender Grace-a novel.

I absolutely loved the way Audrey went to her husband’s Bible and through the book of John. Did this come from your own study of John. (This is one of several questions submitted by Kim Ford at Window to My World,

I will never get over being grateful to God for the idea of Tender Grace-for the idea of taking Audrey on a trip and for the idea of her taking Tom’s Bible along, specifically, the book of John. That is my favorite book of the Bible, and I have written from it and given speeches over it many times. I’ve taken a couple of groups I’ve mentored through that gospel as well. Passages have overwhelmed me personally.

I love the passage that introduced the four scriptures that are the sheep Audrey counts when she can’t sleep. “It is I”; Jesus says, “don’t be afraid.” How that phrase has comforted me through the years. But one of my favorite John passages appears near the end of the book where Audrey says she has a new group of sheep to count, the “It’s the Lord” group. I’ve discussed that passage in an article/speech, and audiences have loved it. I knew that had to go in, and it fit perfectly into her trip and her frame of mind when John 21 came around.

I’ve also written about another favorite passage in John 11, where Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave. That is so dramatic, of course, and Jesus’ tears are so touching. When I write a speech or an article, almost always the text has touched the deepest part of me. Out of the Word he has given to and preserved for us, I have glimpsed the power and love of God. Being able to highlight these things in Tender Grace (because anything I used HAD to be subordinated to story) seemed like a gift from God. The nature of this first book allowed me to go through the book and testify to God’s work in our lives. I’ve thanked God for that privilege again and again.

 What is a memorable moment on the road to publication (and how is it different that other things you’ve had published)? (From Kim Ford,

I was overwhelmed twenty-five or so years ago when Standard Publishing accepted and subsequently published my first articles for their take-home magazines, Christian Standard and The Lookout. And I was thrilled twenty years ago when a local publishing company asked me to write a non-fiction book on parenting (Framing a Rainbow) and then asked me to compile some of my articles and speeches into a book of essays (Because Love Welcomed Me). (These fledgling books are out of print but still available—Google my name.)

But that can not compare to how I felt when David Horton allowed me to send him and Bethany House Tender Grace (my second try at writing a novel). It was a long five month process from when I sent it to David until Charlene Peterson the vice president of fiction wrote me an email to say they were going to acquire it. I opened that email while I was visiting my daughter in California, and I just sat there staring at her words, reading her short note over and over. “Hey, guys,” I finally said, “come and look at this.” My husband, my daughter, son-in-law, and three grandkids gathered around and just stared at the screen with me. Really, writing a novel is one things, getting a publisher to look at it is another, having them acquire it is still another. As my family and I stared in disbelief at the computer screen, I felt like God was smiling.

Is the book coming out in October a sequel or a second stand alone? Can you give us a sneak peek? (Please tell me we get to know Zack a little better.) (Kim Ford,

Four or five people now have said they would like a sequel to TG. (And they’d like it right now.) I haven’t planned a sequel. I rather like stand alone novels. You get a character into trouble and hopefully you get her out. If I write a sequel, Audrey will have to have another conflict to resolve, and I want her to go in peace. (But I’m thinking about it anyway). Right now I’m working on a third book, and I have an inkling of an idea for maybe a fourth and fifth book (I don’t think I’ll be prolific and I’m a very slow writer!) So I don’t know about a sequel although I certainly left TG open ended. I didn’t do that because I was going to write another novel about Audrey but because the ending seemed to fit the beginning. Audrey had awakened; she could sing again. For me that was logical and delightful closure.

The book coming out in October is called Things Worth Remembering. Structurally, it is quite a departure from Tender Grace. It is still first person, but it’s present tense, and it has two narrators, a mother, Kendy, and her 22-year-old daughter, Maisey. It takes place from Monday through Saturday of Maisey’s wedding week. Each day starts and ends with Kendy, but the chapters alternate between the two women.

I loved working with each of their voices, and I loved both characters so much, as well as the supporting characters. But these women are in crisis, quite a serious one. The story is my answer to the question: Restoration is possible with God and man, but is it possible between mere mortals as well? One character needs to be forgiven, and the other needs to forgive-both needs have heart breaking implications. This is a different kind of crisis than Audrey had, but it’s just as poignant and real.

Though the structure is different, the style is much the same. I’m so hoping the audience that likes Tender Grace will like Things Worth Remembering.  



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