Writers are a mixed lot and do what they do for many reasons, but it’s good to speak to specific writers about specific projects to gain insight on why that writer chose a specific project to write at the specific time s/he wrote it. So I went to author Elaine Hussey, a well-respected author of Southern Fiction (as well as many other types of books), and asked for her perspective.
As always, the gracious Ms. Hussey shared. Our discussion, which I found full of gems, follows. But first, for those of you not yet familiar with Ms. Hussey, here’s a bit about her in her own words:
ABOUT ELAINE HUSSEY
By the time I was a teenager with secrets of my own, I knew I would someday be a writer. Sitting in my daddy’s hayloft and fresh from falling in love with Huckleberry Finn, I dreamed of being Mark Twain.
As you can see, I became neither Roy Rogers nor Mark Twain, being the wrong gender and afraid of horses, to boot. But I did become a writer, late in the sixties after I had taken the married name Webb. During the 60s and 70s I wrote about two hundred humor columns (shades of Twain) for trade magazines. During that time, I also taught high school English. Though I loved teaching and adored my students, I felt stifled by the routine, so my stay in the classroom was brief.
By the mid-80s I had moved on to writing women’s fiction. Reviewers and fans were very kind to me, and I got so comfortable in that genre I stayed far longer than I’d planned. Writing as Peggy Webb, I produced a mind-boggling number of books.
In early 2000 I was back in the classroom, this time teaching writing as an adjunct at Mississippi State University. It was an enormously creative period for me, with ideas flowing so freely I amassed a huge file of story ideas, partial books and completed books. One of those ideas was for a little comedic mystery series, which I had the opportunity to publish in 2008. It seems I still harbored dreams of being Mark Twain.
Finally I ended up where I’d been heading all along, telling the complex stories that took hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go, first as Anna Michaels and now as Elaine Hussey with The Sweetest Hallelujah.
As I write this bio, I realize how much of my own life I poured into ten-year-old Billie – yearning for Roy Rogers, dreaming, eavesdropping, defying adult authority.
And then there’s the glorious Miss Queen… Her life is defined by family, music and faith, much like mine. Though it wasn’t common for little farm girls to learn music, my mother was determined that all three of her daughters have piano lessons. As a result, both my sisters and I play piano and organ. Sandra is still the organist in her small northeast Tennessee church, and Jo Ann sometimes graces the piano bench at the little church near the farm where we all grew up. I was church pianist for many years, and I still sing first soprano in my church choir.
But my heart always yearned toward blues. Some of the lyrics I composed as Li’l Rosie appear in The Sweetest Hallelujah.
My life and my art are intertwined. This is an unconscious process, and it’s only on reflection that I discover how much of my real story has been transposed into fiction. Unlike Pat Conroy, I don’t have a Great Santini to draw upon, but I do have a background rich with open green spaces and music and memories. As long as the stories sing through me, I’ll tell them. And I am ever so grateful to you for reading them…
Now that we know who is speaking to us, let’s look at her book to get the best grip on what advice she shares with us:
ABOUT THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH
The Sweetest Hallelujah is a book that takes place in 1955 Mississippi. Two courageous women from opposite sides of the proverbial track defy color lines to save a child.
Kirkus Reviews said, “Hussey has written a lovely, poetic book about race, love, mothers, daughters and friends that navigates a spectrum of emotional mindfields.”
Now that we have a solid frame of reference on the author and the portion of her writing we’ll be discussing, let’s get to specifics about our topic in the form of questions and answers.
Vicki: What made you want to write The Sweetest Hallejuah now? Was it a new-to-you book idea, or one you’d had in mind for a long time?
Elaine Hussey: I actually started writing the story more than ten years ago, but I quickly realized the book was missing the magic that would make it sing. Because I had so many deadlines (writing as Peggy Webb), I set The Sweetest Hallelujah aside. But the story kept haunting me. Through the years I’d take out the manuscript and tinker a bit. About two years ago, a perfect storm of events happened, and the book was reborn: I got a fabulous new agent; I decided to set the book in 1955, and I discovered Billie. This feisty, precocious, priceless little ten-year-old started talking to me and wouldn’t quit. I rushed to my computer to take dictation, and The Sweetest Hallelujah was reborn.
(Note: The author felt compelled to write the book at this time, and so she followed her instincts.)
Vicki: Your writing voice is lyrical. Do you attribute that to your southern roots, your music, or something else entirely?
Elaine Hussey: A combination of them all, I think. Certainly, music plays a huge role in my writing. Words sing through me so that the story I’m writing seems to be a symphony as well as novel. The melody of it gets caught in my head, so that when I read an edited version, I can “hear” if one word has been changed. It’s like hearing a wrong note in a piano concerto. The word simply rings false.
Too, I think a Southern writer’s attention to details as well as the musical cadences of the Deep South drawl play a big part in the lyricism you’ll find in my books.
(Note: The author heeds her inner ear and its instructions, so attuned that changes are akin to wrong notes. This is a strong indicator that the author is writing both within her author theme and in her natural voice.)
Vicki: I was moved by the bonds that developed between the two women working to save this special child. Being needed for the story isn’t enough to craft people of this deep dimension. What did you draw from to create them?
Elaine Hussey: Thank you so much, Vicki! Through the years, I’ve depended on my friends to celebrate with me when I’m happy, to cry with me when I’m blue, to pick me up when I fall, and to encourage me when I lose my wings and forget how to fly.
When I created Betty Jewel and Cassie, Sudie and Merry Lynn, Queen and Fay Dean, I tapped into my own deep and abiding love for my friends.
(Note: Not only drawing on real life, but from it. Emulating experienced relationships to build successful multi-dimensional characters.)
Vicki: Would you say that The Sweetest Hallejuah is a purpose-driven book or one written solely to entertain? As an outsider, I think it’s both entertaining and purpose-driven. A deft hand makes for a compelling read. I’m not suggesting any book must be one or the other, but I’m asking if this book for you was one you felt driven to write for a specific purpose.
Elaine Hussey: I wrote this book because the story caught hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go. Then the characters came so fully to life I felt as if they’d moved in with me. I could almost smell the fried chicken Miss Queen was cooking up in my kitchen. I halfway expected her to go out back and wring the neck of Domineck hen! Does The Sweetest Hallelujah say something important? You bet. It speaks of heartbreak and hope, of compassion and tolerance. It shows the courage of women in times that were not only trying, but dangerous.
I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, Vicki. I have a general idea of the beginning, the middle and the end of a story, but I let the characters take me on a journey that is often unexpected and always entertaining. If my characters can entertain me, then I figure they have a good shot at entertaining others, too. Still, if the story can also say something sure and true, I’m more than happy to claim that was my goal all along!
(Note: Often writers don’t know specifically why they’re writing exactly what they’re writing, but the reason somehow infuses the work, guides and directs it–if the author is willing to be honest and true in the writing. That’s a significant gem here!)
Vicki: What three things do you hope readers takeaway from The Sweetest Hallejuah with them?
Elaine Hussey: These three things: (1) The importance of family and friends, (2) the tremendous power of women on fire with purpose, (3) but most of all, the necessity of hope.
(Note: Even seats-of-the-pants authors can articulate their hope for the work. Maybe s/he doesn’t know it at the beginning or even as the story is unfolding and being written, but after it’s done, the author sees the reason for the story clearly and if s/he so chooses, can share it with others.)
Vicki: You’ve written many, many books in your career. Most have been as Peggy Webb. Why did you choose to write The Sweetest Hallejuah as Elaine Hussey?
Elaine Hussey: A writer’s name is also a brand. In a nearly 30-year career, I’ve branded Peggy Webb as a writer of romantic comedy and comedic mysteries. When readers see that name, they have certain expectations for the book. The Sweetest Hallelujah is vastly different from my early work, and I needed a name that would say so. Elaine is my middle name, Hussey my maiden name. I think how proud my parents would be to see Elaine Hussey on the cover of a literary fiction novel that is not just a departure for me, but a leap across the river.
(Note that the author isn’t doing what is easiest for herself, which would be to continue with a well-established name, but doing what is right for her readers. She’s working to meet their expectations. Another gem. Pure gold.)
Vicki: What does the book, The Sweetest Hallejuah, mean to you—and what do you hope it will mean to readers?
Elaine Hussey: Though I wrote “The End” a long time ago, I still feel as if these characters are my friends and that I have gone along on their heartbreaking but hopeful journey. I hope readers will feel the same way. I hope they will, as the Daily Journal reviewer said, “Cry, laugh, and then cry again.” But most of all, I hope they will find the story unforgettable.
Vicki, it has been a pleasure talking to you about The Sweetest Hallelujah. You are so dear that I’m willing to let you show this picture of me with my mouth wide open. Of course, having my own elevator door was reason enough to be open-mouthed with awe and joy!
As I said in the beginning, authors write what they write when they write it for a myriad of reasons. Yet in asking specifics of other writers, we learn to self-examine our work and careers and to clearly define what we are doing and why. The importance of that can’t be overstated.
And, yet another gem can be found in the Elaine Hussey photo above, taken at the 2013 RWA conference. Ms. Hussey’s cover was made into an elevator wrap and she was absolutely (as you can tell by her expression) delighted. We should never lose that sense of joy and wonder. It shines through in the work.
My gratitude to Ms. Hussey for sharing her wisdom and best wishes for every success with The Sweetest Hallelujah, a poignant book that will resonate with readers long after the last page is read and reread.
Vicki Hinze is the award-winning bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest releases are: Torn Loyalties (romantic suspense), Duplicity (mystery/thriller), Maybe This Time (paranormal romance), One Way to Write a Novel (nonfiction). She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s website:Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact. www.vickihinze.com.
The Sweetest Hallelujuh is published by MIRA, an imprint of Harlequin Books, and is available at your favorite bookstores.