Summer Sanctuary (Luminis Books/May 2010) is about Matthew, a 12-year-old homeschooled preacher’s kid, who goes to the library to work on a science project, meets a homeless teenager there, and persuades her to live secretly in his church for the summer. The sanctuary of the church is where the two connect through music with Matthew playing piano and Dinah playing harmonica. There’s also the concept of sanctuary from medieval times because Dinah’s biggest fear is that someone will turn her over to Child Welfare and she’ll end up in a foster home instead of back with her mom where she wants to be. The real sanctuary, though, is the friendship of two very different kids from very different places and how they can learn about themselves as they get to know each other.
Tell us something about yourself.
I’m an attorney and a child forensic interviewer as well as an author. I really love working with kids and appreciate how hard it can be sometimes, especially for teens, to have all these people in authority over you telling you what you can and can’t do, when you’re trying to figure out for yourself who you are and what you want. My first career was as a high school Spanish teacher. Then I went to law school, and while I was in private practice I sometimes worked as a court-appointed advocate for kids in the Child Welfare system. I spent the last decade as a deputy prosecuting attorney working primarily in the areas of felony sex crimes, drug court and juvenile justice. I recently left the prosecutor’s office to spend more time writing, speaking and consulting. As soon as I left, our local Child Advocacy Center hired me as a Child Forensic Interviewer. So I still get to talk to kids within the system.
What inspired you to write this book?
I did a lot of people watching at the library. There were people like Matthew seeking freedom and the vicarious experience available through books, but there were also people like Dinah who seemed to be seeking a place of shelter and safety. The idea for Summer Sanctuary grew from there. I also liked the idea of having Matthew be scientifically minded and grappling with the concept of faith. I had several poems I had written in high school that seemed like something Dinah might write, so I decided to make her a poet. I love music, and it seemed like the perfect way for a math/science guy who plays piano by the book to connect with a poet who plays the harmonica or “blues harp” by ear. And I should probably confess that I did end up spending the night in a church once as a teenager when I was supposed to be at a friend’s house and she was supposed to be at my house, and we ended up with no place else to stay. But that was way back in the days when most people and churches in rural Indiana didn’t bother to lock their doors.
Which part of the writing process did you enjoy most?
I love running with different ideas on what the characters might be thinking and doing and all of the research and discovery that goes with it…like reading The Chronicles of Narnia (Matthew’s favorite books) and Harry Potter (Dinah’s favorite books) and learning lots of cool factoids about Dinah Shore. And I bought a harmonica and learned to play it (kind of) as I was writing. It’s much easier to write about playing an instrument well than it is to actually play it well!
Which part of the writing process was most challenging?
The most challenging part is making the characters real—more than just stereotypes, extensions of myself or reflections of people I’ve known. Writing dialogue is also challenging because you want it to sound like something the person would actually say, but you also need to make sure it’s concise and keeps the pace and plot moving. I try to make my characters unique and universal at the same time. That’s a challenge!
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Matthew and Dinah’s names are central to the story. Matthew is the first gospel in the New Testament. Matthew’s younger siblings are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th gospels: Mark, Luke and John. Matthew’s mom is expecting again and Matthew’s best friend jokes about their names by calling the yet unborn baby “Acts” which is the next book of the New Testament. Dinah is actually a Hebrew name meaning “good judgment.” There is a “Dinah” in the Old Testament and that story comes into play, but the way we judge (and misjudge) ourselves and others is also a central theme in the book.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
I think the biggest obstacle to first-time young adult novelists is the reality that big publishers don’t accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts, and most reputable agents aren’t interested in an unknown author’s debut young adult novel. So I submitted primarily to smaller publishers. I collected over a dozen rejections, mostly form letters, but some with very encouraging comments. The other problem more specific to Summer Sanctuary is that mainstream publishers felt it was too Christian since the main character is a preacher’s kid and the church is a central place. So I started submitting it to Christian publishers, but it wasn’t really Christian enough for that market since Matthew keeps Dinah’s secrets from his parents, doesn’t get in trouble for keeping the secrets, and accepts Dinah as she is rather than trying to convert her. Finally, a friend told me about a new publisher called Luminis Books in Carmel, Indiana that is interested in literary fiction and literary young adult fiction. They loved the manuscript.
What is your hope for Summer Sanctuary?
My hope is that the book will reach a lot of different kids exactly where they are and give them hope and encouragement. I also hope that parents will read the book and that this will create opportunities for them to talk with their kids about issues like growing up, becoming independent, homelessness, poverty and even sexual assault.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I’ve always loved reading and writing. I remember writing silly poems and alternative words to songs as I was growing up. In high school, I wrote for our literary publication called “The Aeneid” (particularly appropriate because my last name was Virgil back then…my grandfather’s name was Homer Horace Virgil!). I attended a creative writer’s workshop at Goshen College and ultimately chose to enroll there because they sent me a brochure that looked like a passport. I became a high school language teacher and later went to law school, still loving to read and write, but not really sure that I had anything to say. Finally, after becoming a parent and turning 40, I decided to stop waiting to feel like I had something important to say and just start writing. I took a correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature and wrote Summer Sanctuary at the same time. I realized that it’s better to empower kids to think for themselves than to tell them what to think, and I try to do that through my books. I’ve worked with a lot of troubled teens from all different backgrounds, and I wanted to write something to help them feel more connected and less alone in this world as they each struggle to find their own way. . I’m a big fan of the Socratic Method which takes its name from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who also happened to be Plato’s teacher. Seems like everything I’m doing professionally really goes back to that, hence the name of my company: Socratic Parenting LLC.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I finished my second young adult novel last year, but it’s much different than Summer Sanctuary. My current publisher, Luminis Books, decided it wasn’t a good fit for them right now, so I’m currently shopping that primarily to agents who seems to be more interested now that I’m a published author. My second novel, Just Myrto, is set in ancient Greece and introduces readers to Socrates through the eyes of his much younger wife, Myrto, who is 18 when the story begins. It’s really a journey of self-empowerment and Myrto’s feeling of going from having nothing to having everything, not because the world around her changed, but because she changed on the inside. I’m actually about 21 chapters into my third young adult novel, but it’s really still a work in progress, so I think I’ll hold off on any details on that one until I at least complete the first draft. It’s very different from both Summer Sanctuary and Just Myrto. I’ve also got a couple of picture books/inspirational books that I’ve written that I’d like to find a publisher for and a nonfiction book proposal for a Socratic Parenting book that’s been on a back burner for several years. I hope to turn my attention back to that once I finish my third novel. It’s hard to predict which one will actually hit the bookshelves next.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Never stop reading and improving your craft. Keep writing and keep believing in yourself. Really research publishers and agents before you send a submission, and make sure you comply with their guidelines EXACTLY. Proof everything meticulously. You never get a second chance to make a good first impression, so always be professional in all your writing and communications. These are the things you can control. You can’t control whether or not a specific publishing house is interested in your book. Be patient. Writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and prepare to put in your 10,000 hours.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
The best way to learn more about me and all of my projects is on my website: www.SocraticParenting.com. For all of my most recent writing and speaking news, friend me on Facebook. I only post professional updates, so I never turn down a friend request!