I am very pleased to feature Fiona Veitch Smith on my blog. Fiona is a British author whose latest book, The Jazz Files, is an historical mystery. (You can read my review HERE.) There are some differences in how Christian fiction is perceived in Britain and the United States, and Fiona was gracious to discuss this sometimes controversial subject. I know that this is a somewhat lengthy interview, but I think you will be pleased to find out more about Fiona and her heart for writing.
By The Book — Many authors say that they always knew they were writers. When did you decide that you were indeed a writer?
Fiona Veitch Smith — I always loved writing, telling and acting in stories as a child. When I was around 16 I decided I wanted to become a journalist. My ‘creative’ writing took the form of theatre plays. When I was 32 I decided to stop working full-time on the newspaper and freelance as a journalist instead, thus freeing up more time for my creative writing. It was then that I started writing books too.
BTB — Was there anyone — teacher, parent, friend — who encouraged your love of reading and writing?
Fiona — I am the first person in my family to finish high school, never mind go to university. My dad though always encouraged me to get a good education. I have a number of English teachers who also encouraged me as a reader and writer. I particularly remember Mrs Cresswell, Miss Coetzee, Miss Nienaber and my high school teacher, Ruth Everson, who herself is a published award-winning poet, with whom I am still in contact.
BTB — What authors have inﬂuenced your writing?
Fiona — For mystery, my childhood loves were Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keane (the Nancy Drew books). For characterization, I love Dickens with his rich, larger-than-life cast (see Rollo and Aunt Dot in The Jazz Files). For wit and social satire I have been influenced by Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Evelyn Waugh (Scoop, Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies – all set in the 20s). In terms of layering humour over tragedy, I am inspired by the writing of Athol Fugard (a South African playwright) and the Afro-British novelist Andrea Levy (Small Island, The Long Song). And the list goes on . . . .
BTB — The Jazz Files is an historical mystery novel set during the 1920s. What inspired you to write a book in that time and place?
Fiona — Apart from the fabulous fashion and music that I love (I play jazz clarinet, very poorly) it’s a period in which the world was in transition. Periods of transition are always good for drama. The world was just emerging from the horror of the First World War and desperately trying to rediscover hope. As it is the centenary of WWI it is currently all over the news. So it seemed to me the perfect period to explore the themes I’m interested in. It is the first recognizably ‘modern’ decade. The Twenties was a time of intense experimentation with ‘newness’ while trying to come to terms – or suppress – the horror of what had just happened in the world. The message of The Jazz Files – and all my books, I think – is that when we suppress the darkness it leads to trouble, and healing only comes when things are brought into the light.
BTB — Why mystery ﬁction?
Fiona — The short answer is Nancy Drew. 🙂 The longer answer is that it is the perfect genre to explore the recurring theme of bringing things from darkness to light. For me it has spiritual connotations. Also, as a journalist, I was always drawn to stories where there was injustice and through exposing it I hoped to right that wrong. Mystery fiction deals with the discovery of injustice and the righting of wrongs. For me it’s a perfect fit. And it’s fun!
BTB — The Jazz Files found a home with a Christian publisher. What motivated you to go that route rather than with a general market publisher? (Note: The Jazz Files is a CBA offering in the US.)
Fiona — I had a pre-existing relationship with the parent company, Lion Hudson with non-fiction work (which didn’t get published in the end). My novel writing was never intended for the Christian market (I’ll explain why below) so I never bothered pitching anything to them. However, when they started the Lion Fiction imprint, aiming to publish books that could find a home in Christian and general bookshops – for both the general and Christian reader – I decided to send something to them. In the end that wasn’t published either(!) but they very much liked my writing and asked me for other ideas. That’s when the idea for The Jazz Files came into being. So I actually wrote it for them – and they loved it. If they hadn’t taken it on I would not have approached another Christian publisher (again I’ll explain below) and would have sent it to general publishers. But I believe God opened this specific door for me, and I’m excited to see what He’s going to do with it.
BTB — What do you see as the differences between writing Christian ﬁction and writing a novel from a Christian worldview.
Fiona — ‘Christian fiction’ has traditionally tended to deal with the story of a character’s conversion – or his/her journey away from and then back to God. Or it dealt with a Christian’s evangelistic outreach – how they encounter non-Christians and lead them to faith or demonstrate God’s goodness. These are fictionalisations of the testimony stories we hear in church or read in Christian biographies. They are faith building – but usually for people who already identify with the Christian faith. They tend to be populated with characters who live good, clean Christian lives, and if they don’t, they will eventually repent and move towards the ideal Christian lifestyle by the end. Although the scope of Christian fiction has broadened in the last few years, traditionally Christian fiction was written with a Christian readership in mind, sometimes with the hope that a non-Christian might also stumble upon it and be converted to Christ. But largely, these books are written by Christians, for Christians and about Christians, pre-vetted by the publisher to ensure the reader will not have to read anything they may find offensive (sexual content, foul language, etc.) and placed on the ‘Christian fiction’ shelf in a bookshop. That is not what I want to write. I understand that in Christian bookshops they are placed on the ‘Christian Fiction’ shelf as that is the only shelf for fiction in that sort of bookshop.
I am hoping that in time that will change. However, on Amazon and in general bookshops my books are placed on the thriller and mystery shelf, right next to authors such as Karen Slaughter. They are first and foremost historical mystery novels. I do ‘preach the gospel’ – in sermons, from the pulpit. I also share my faith and the story of my conversion with people I meet from time to time. However, I don’t feel led to do that in my novels. I write from a Christian worldview that people of faith or no faith can read and enjoy. Some ‘secular’ novels completely expunge God from their pages except when He – or Christians – are portrayed in a negative light. As God is so much a part of my life – and part of the fabric of everyone’s life whether they realise it or not – I don’t leave Him out of my stories. That’s what it means to write from a Christian worldview: God is there, whether we believe it or not, and themes of forgiveness and redemption are woven through our lives. God is present in subtle ways – usually behind the scenes – whereas in Christian Fiction He is front and centre. Apart from the rare exception, non-Christians will not go near Christian fiction out of fear that they are going to be preached to and that they won’t be able to identify with the characters. As such it is almost never stocked in a general bookshop (at least not here in the UK). Lion Fiction is trying to bridge that gap. I hope that a non-Christian reading my books will accept that faith is just a natural part of some characters’ lives. And that, thank the Lord, is what has happened so far.
I have been thrilled with the response of non-Christians to this book. Perhaps it is because there is no evangelistic expectation and they feel ‘safe’ to just enjoy it. They won’t be evangelized, but they will find a story where people struggle with faith and make mistakes; where people question God’s existence and how He can allow so much suffering in the world. In my experience those are questions most people ask at some time in their lives, whether Christian or not. In Lion Fiction books they will not get answers in the form of a gospel presentation backed up by scriptures, but they will get a sense that through certain characters’ lives (for example Elizabeth) God has been working all along. And finally, unlike Christian Fiction, I do not feel the need to wrap up their faith journey at the end. There will still be doubts for Poppy throughout the series, but hopefully there will be more light at the end than the beginning.
BTB — The American audience is different from others. Many want their Christian ﬁction to be free of “naughty words” (what we would call mild profanity) and to have “conservative” values in regards to themes and situations. The Jazz Files does not follow that formula. What would you like your American audience to take away from your novel?
Fiona — I did not set out to write Christian Fiction so I have found it slightly disconcerting when the book is assessed by how well it lives up to a label I never intended for it. However, I realise that Christians as well as non-Christians read my books and that many of them have previously received traditional Christian fiction from the American distributor, Kregel (which markets to both Christian and general channels and bloggers, and makes it clear that Lion Fiction titles are for a broad readership). Nonetheless, the book seems to have attracted the label of Christian Fiction in some quarters in America and this has set up certain expectations, leading to confusion and disappointment for some readers. However, from the reviews, I’m encouraged that most Christian reviewers have enjoyed the book and grasped what it is about at a deeper level. So I hope Christians would enjoy the spiritual themes.
I also hope they will enjoy reading about a Christian character trying to live out her faith in a secular world. The majority of Christians live and work in a world where people of faith are in the minority – and that’s what you’ll find in The Jazz Files. I would also hope that they would be touched by the stories of outsiders that pepper my books (women, disabled people, people of ethnic minorities) and see in them God’s heart for the oppressed and excluded. I would love if Christians were pleasantly surprised at how much Christian content can be in a book that will be read and enjoyed by non-Christian readers too. And perhaps rather than ending with feeling upset by my books because of a few rude words and scenarios they could commit to praying for me, my fellow authors and the team at Lion Fiction as we seek to get books that speak positively of God into the market place. It’s a hard middle line to walk, which we think about and pray about and try our best to serve a very varied market. We look not to alienate anyone through what we produce – we aren’t looking to offend or to provoke, just to produce books where characters and situations have integrity. And we do write and edit with the full market in mind, so you won’t find blasphemy in our books, or overt sex scenes.
Finally, a word on homosexuality and swearing. Two of my characters are described as ‘companions’ and it is suggested they are lesbians. This has been picked up by some reviewers as something that does not belong in a ‘Christian’ book. However, I present the relationship neutrally. I have some characters who are shocked and offended by it, some who simply don’t believe it, some who don’t know what to believe, some who support it wholeheartedly and some that don’t really mind. In my experience that pretty much reflects the broad sweep of reactions in the church. Readers can choose to react to the homosexual characters any way they like – and I have left the door open for that – but I don’t want to pretend homosexual people don’t exist. With regard to profanity, the only swear words in the book are uttered by characters who would use those sorts of words – and in reality probably far worse – in the secular world. We have sought to be as authentic as possible in our characterization while trying not to offend readers. There is nothing in there that would raise an eyebrow with many British Christians. I am sorry if some American Christians have been offended by the few instances of mild ‘profanity’ but I hope they understand that this is largely cultural and what is considered appropriate language and behavior (drinking alcohol etc.) for Christians differs from country to country. I remember once spending time with some Scandinavian Christians who routinely used the ‘F’ Word and S*** in everyday conversation. They were surprised that I was surprised!
BTB — Poppy Denby is the only Christian portrayed in The Jazz Files. How are her actions/ choices similar or dissimilar from the non-believing characters? Why did you write her in that way? (Note: in crafting my question, I unwittingly omitted the second Christian character.)
Fiona — There are actually two overt Christians in the book and a few background characters too. The other main character is Elizabeth who, without giving away too much of the plot, has had an awful life. And yet she holds onto her faith – at times only by her fingernails. She is an example of someone whose faith has been tested – and continues to be so – through fire. Poppy in contrast has had a relatively easy Christian life and it is only in recent times on the death of her brother that she has begun to explore the depths of her faith. I have portrayed her as an ‘innocent’ coming to the big city where the values and faith she has been raised with will be tested. She is on a journey towards finding the shape of her own faith – and exploring her own relationship with God – and not just the faith of her parents. She is written from my own experience of being a young journalist – the only person of faith – on a newspaper and trying to make the right choices that honour God. And for me the choices about truth, justice and integrity – and if the end can ever justify the means – are more important than whether or not she’s going to try pink champagne. 🙂 So, like me, in a profession that deals with subterfuge and secrets and where there are questionable deals done to get the story, Poppy has to see if she can make the right choices for the right reasons. Sometimes she gets it wrong (as I did) and sometimes she gets it right. I hope readers can identify with that.
BTB — What does the future hold for Poppy and Fiona? Any new adventures you would like to share?
Fiona — In Book 2, The Kill Fee (coming out in September), Poppy gets caught up in a mystery involving the exiled Romanov Royal family and the theft of a Faberge Egg. And after that, I intend taking Poppy to New York! I’m hoping to go on a research trip there over the summer, but still need to find the money to finance it. If I do, I hope to see some of Poppy’s American fans when I’m there. It will be flapulous, darlings!
Thanks so much, Fiona, for sharing your heart with my readers!
Formerly a journalist, Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer of books, theatre plays and screenplays.
Her children’s picturebooks, the Young David series, are now published by SPCK Publishing. Her adult mystery series set in the 1920s, Poppy Denby Investigates, is published by Lion Fiction. The first book in the series, The Jazz Files, is available from September 2015.
She is a member of the British Society of Authors and the Association of Christian Writers. Fiona is also the editor of the popular writing advice website The Crafty Writer and her courses attract students from around the world.
She lives with her husband, daughter and two dogs in Newcastle upon Tyne where she lectures in media and scriptwriting at the local universities.