Lois West Duffy – Zillah’s Gift

This is your first book, right? Tell us a bit about it.

Yes, it’s my first book, and is meant to be the first of a series of books with young girls as the heroines, but in an exotic time and place—2,000 years ago in the Middle East. This book, Zillah’s Gift, is a story of miracles, and the adventures of a girl who follows a star and three princely sages to a destiny beyond anything she could have imagined.

Why this story, and why now?

Several reasons. First of all, I wanted to write stories that place girls into familiar stories from the Bible; too often, girls’ and women’s stories haven’t been told. I want to write stories to make history and myth come alive. I think of Zillah’s Gift as a fable, putting a girl in the story of the Magi.

And it’s a coming-of-age book, with Zillah as a role model; a story of loss, but also of acceptance. My character, Zillah is an orphan–I always loved orphan books as a child. Something about that feeling of risk, I think, with no parents to stop you from taking fearful chances. She is forced to fight off bullies and bandits. Worse, Zillah has a birthmark on her face that makes her an outcast in the caravan serai where she lives.

A caravan serai?

A caravan serai is a sort of camel motel, really a walled settlement, where desert travelers would stop for rest and water. There are still remnants of historical caravan serai’s in Central Asia and into the middle east, believed to be part of the ancient silk road.

Where did you get the title character’s name? How did you come up with the names for your characters?

Ah, Zillah is actually from the Bible, the book of Genesis–the seventh generation from Adam an Eve. But when I first heard the name, it was my husband’s cat, Zillah–though the name came through an Old-Testament Scholar. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, exotic-sounding names. Some, I make up.

How did you choose the title?

Zillah is a gifted girl, though she doesn’t know it at the beginning of the story. And she is given many gifts. But, primarily, it is the importance of a gift that she, herself, gives, and what a difference it makes in her life. So: Zillah’s Gift

Tell us something about yourself.

I’ve always been interested in stories–as a newspaper and Associated Press writer, as a press secretary for a U.S. Senator, as a mom and as a teacher. I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and “published” a newspaper by writing on lined school tablets when I was a kid. The inaugural issue featured a car crash at the corner by our farm. It was the most exciting thing around. That might have been the only issue, too.

I recently had a poem published in a Holy Cow! Press anthology, When Last on the Mountain, The View from Writers over 50, and have had poems and short non-fiction in The Talking Stick, published by The Jackpine Writers’ Block. And I am honored to be in a writing group with one of my favorite authors, Faith Sullivan. I am working on my thesis for my MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University. But that is in non-fiction.

Is that going to be your next book?

I doubt it. I’m working on a sequel to Zillah, as well as a story involving a girl in the Easter story.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

I had an agent for awhile, and she came close with two secular publishers, and a Christian publisher was interested, then said “we’re not published that kind of book any more.” (“what kind?” I wondered, but was too intimidated to ask). So I got impatient and went to Beaver’s Pond Press, a “mentoring” publisher, where I would have more control over when and how it was published. Most small publishers don’t have a budget for marketing, so you have to work hard on the marketing, no matter what. I quickly sold enough books to pay for the printing, but the marketing is an additional cost. I’m glad I did it this way, and I’m now thinking about a second run, probably when my next book comes out.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

Since starting to write Zillah, I’ve come to really appreciate young adult novels. The best ones are written with great honesty and insight into the (young) human condition. I like books with big themes, like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. And, as I’ve said, I love Faith Sullivan’s books; hers feature universal themes too, characters struggling with life’s problems as I follow them on the page, so I feel a part of their lives. Right now I’m reading a memoir, Revere Beach Elegy by Roland Merullo. I love the simple complexity, if I can use an oxymoron, of his stories.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Faith gave each of us a wall motto: “No One Else Can Write Your Story.” Just write your story. Tell it in all it’s depth, complexity, simplicity and truth. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a story that rings true, that strikes at the heart of things, will find readers.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

I always thought it would be 9-year-old girls, because that’s who I used as test readers. But I’ve had good reviews from kids of other ages, including an 11-year-old boy who recommended it to his friends. Even some adults said they were touched by the story to the point of tears.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

At my website, loiswestduffy.com or my Author Page on Amazon –though I recommend ordering through your local independent bookstore (-: