Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Christians with the Heart of a Service -- Virginia Smith

Another in the series, Christians with the Heart of a Servant.


I first met Virginia Smith standing in line at the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writer’s Conference. In just a matter of minutes we had struck up a conversation that had everyone around us smiling. I believe there’s nothing more engaging to the people around you than good humorous conversation. This was exactly what Ginny, me, and great friend, Rose had in our favor.

That day began a lasting friendship that hundreds of miles failed to tear apart. Ginny gave me a copy of her first published book that day and before the week was out at the conference, I had managed to read through and fall in love with Mayla Strong and her quirky ways. Though I can’t say that Ginny’s character, Mayla, is based off of the author herself, I can say her humor has rubbed off.

In the year that I’ve come to know and love Virginia Smith, I can definitely say, without a doubt, she harbors the Heart of a Servant.

Please meet author, and best friend, Virginia Smith and her story of Christians with the Heart of a Servant.

Hi Ginny! I appreciate you taking time out of your deadline filled schedule to provide us with an interview. Last year when we stood in line at the conference, Just As I Am had just hit bookstores. During this year, God has blessed your writing over and over and over again. Let’s start by having you tell us what great things have happened to you and your writing this year.

You’re right when you say God has blessed me – abundantly and thoroughly! His blessings started with a second book contract, this one for a Christian murder mystery. I had never written a mystery before, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Agatha Christie, so I dove into that book and tried to make it as good as hers. (Murder by Mushroom comes out in August, so you can judge for yourself if I succeeded.) Then after I turned in the manuscript for that book, my editor said she wanted another one! And the same day I received the contract for Bluegrass Peril (which is set in the Kentucky thoroughbred industry and will be in bookstores in December), I also got a contract for a three book series from yet another publisher! So I received contracts for five new books within a six-month period. Only God could have arranged that!

How does it feel to have God working so intensely in your life right now?

At times a bit overwhelming! But that’s not a bad thing – when I start feeling like I can handle everything on my own, that’s when I get into trouble. It’s only when I’m certain that I don’t have the strength or ability or stamina to accomplish all the things on my To Do list that I can totally rely on God. And of course He always comes through.

Tell us about how Mayla Strong came into fruition. Is she based from something or someone who has impressed you?

The physical model for Mayla was a visiting singer in my church. I had never seen anyone with facial jewelry ministering before, certainly not in my traditional church. But this girl wore a stud mid-way between her lower lip and chin and obviously loved the Lord. I was intrigued. If she got the piercing before she became a Christian, why didn’t she take it out afterward? And what did her home church think? And what did her mother think? The more I wondered about her, the more I realized that I needed to write a book about her, and especially about how a church full of traditional church folks would treat her if she walked in off the street.

But the comparison to that girl ended there. Mayla soon became a real person to me. She took on her own characteristics and personality. I made her appearance really radical – I gave her purple hair and pierced her nose, too! And I put her into some situations that young people today really do face. I gave her friends who weren’t Christians, and even had her befriend a gay man dying of AIDS.

A lot of people ask if Mayla’s story is autobiographical. The answer is no… and yes. I’ve never had purple hair or facial piercings, but I have encountered judgmental attitudes in the church, and I’ve encountered judgmental attitudes in the world because I belong to Christ. What a hard place to be – between two worlds, trying to figure out how we can fit either place! But just like Mayla, God never leaves us alone, and if we let Him, He always leads us to the place He wants us to be.

Murder by Mushroom releases in August of this year. What inspired the plot behind this story?

Honestly? A plate of food. Really! I was sitting at lunch beside an editor at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference. She was telling those of us at the table that they were starting to look at cozy mysteries. (Cozies are “gentle” mysteries, like Agatha Christie wrote, as opposed to suspenseful or graphic ones.) Never one to pass up an opportunity, I decided if I could come up with a good idea for a mystery, I might be able to sell it to her. So I sat there as we ate, silently praying for an idea and wracking my brain. And there, on my plate, was a piece of chicken covered in mushroom sauce. Mushrooms! I had a friend who used to hunt wild mushrooms in the woods of Kentucky, and she had warned me how poisonous some of them could be. But how could I make poisonous mushrooms the theme of a story for a Christian publisher? How do I mix mushrooms and church? What about… a church potluck? Voila! When lunch ended, I stood up and said to the editor, “I have an idea for a mystery. A kitchen klutz gets tired of being teased about always bringing potato chips to the church potluck, so she decides to make a casserole to impress everyone. Unfortunately, someone plants poisonous mushrooms in her casserole to kill a gossipy old lady.” The editor smiled and said, “I like it. Send me something.”

As I developed the story, a theme emerged. Pride and gossip are so common in our society today, and both of them play a part in this story. I’m really happy with the way the story turned out.

You were so sweet when I asked you to come to my home church as the keynote speaker at our first ladies’ conference. Your heart of a servant showed through as you flew into your hometown in Kentucky and then drove four hours. You certainly went above and beyond the call of duty. Tell us how you prepared for this speaking engagement.

Oh, I was thrilled to do it, Cindy! I had such a good time at that event.

I prepared for that event the same way I prepare to write a book – by covering it in prayer. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with feelings like, “What in the world do I have to say to anyone? Why would anyone want to come hear me talk, or read something I’ve written?” But God always reminds me that when I think I have nothing to offer, that’s when He can really use me the most. I have to be empty, with nothing of my own to get in the way, before He can fill me so that His love overflows to those around me.

With that conference, the Lord knew exactly who would be there. He knew what He wanted to say to them, how He wanted to minister to them that night. When I came up with the idea of a personality quiz, I thought, “Gosh, this is really going to be dumb. What am I doing? This can’t be from God.” But the entire theme of my talk grew out of that fun little personality quiz. As I studied and prayed about what I’d say, so many personal experiences came to my mind that I could use to relate to the ladies who attended. As always, when the event was over and I looked back on it, I marveled that God used exactly the right words to get His message across. And let me tell you, it’s a pretty awesome feeling when you realize God has used you to touch someone!

Obviously, God uses you through your writing. Tell us how you prepare to put a novel together.

The same way – through prayer. Every story idea I’ve ever gotten came to me because I prayed and asked the Lord for one. See, I truly believe that God has an infinite number of stories to tell, and He carefully selects the author of each one. He has a whole list of stories that He wants me to write, and He is working on me every day, improving my skills, deepening my relationship with Him, until I’m ready to write that specific story. When I’m ready to work on it, He lets me know what it is.

And as I write stories, prayer is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute thing. So many times I’ll be typing away in front of my computer, and I’ll get stuck. I’ll sit back and say, “Okay, Lord, I have no idea what happens next. I need some help here!” and He always comes through. Always. Sometimes I’m amazed at the twists and turns my stories take, but He knows the entire plot before I even begin.

Tell us about the Voice of Joy Ministries and how it has sent Mayla to prison.

Voice of Joy Ministries is a small outreach ministry in central Kentucky that my mother is associated with. They conduct retreats and provide meals for the underprivileged and provide Christian counseling for free to those who can’t afford it. I’ve spoken at VoJ retreats, and I really believe in the services they provide because I’ve seen the Lord change people’s lives through VoJ.

In the last scene of Just As I Am, Mayla is asked to embark on her next act of Christian service – visiting a man in prison. She says, “Okay, God, I’m going to prison!” I really didn’t think anything of that, it just seemed like a natural thing for a new Christian to do, to visit someone in prison. But a few months before the book was released, I was praying about it one day and I felt like the Lord was telling me that He was going to reach someone in prison with this book. I got very excited about this, because I’ve always admired people who have a heart for prison ministry, and have spoken and sung in prisons several times. But how to get the book inside prison doors? Prisons are very cautious about books, and regular people can’t send books to prisoners. Apparently some people have laced drugs in the pages, so they just don’t allow it anymore.

But chaplains can get books into the prison libraries! So I contacted the American Correctional Chaplains Association, and boldly asked the president if I could send him a copy to see if he would endorse it. He did!

I was really excited about this, but of course I had no idea how to handle the logistics of getting books into the hands of prison chaplains. That’s where VoJ came in. They loved my book, and believed in its lifesaving message so much that they volunteered to handle the distribution to prison chaplains who request the book for their libraries. They even discussed it with their attorney and decided to sponsor a campaign so people could make a tax-deductible donation to provide a copy of my book to a prison facility! And thus was born the “Send Mayla to Prison” campaign. They’ve provided hundreds of books to correctional facilities all over the country.

When you wrote Just as I Am did you ever imagine Mayla would be used to minister to youth in prisons?

As I wrote the book? No! But neither did I think Mayla’s story would touch such a wide range of people. I’ve had e-mails from women and men of all ages telling me how Mayla has touched them. And though the “Send Mayla to Prison” campaign really targeted youth facilities and women’s facilities, men’s prisons have been the biggest requesters! In fact, I got a letter from a man in a Mississippi prison a few months after the campaign started telling me he loved my book so much he started using it as a discussion guide for a group of inmates. He was writing to tell me that one of them accepted the Lord! Imagine that!

Ginny, I know your love is science fiction. How did you get from science fiction into Christian humorous and cozy mysteries?

God made me do it. (grin) I had been writing science fiction and fantasy for years, and though I knew my skill had developed and my stories were good, I couldn’t manage to publish anything. I prayed and prayed, begging God to pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease let me publish something. And finally one day He answered my prayer. Directly. With words spoken into my heart. He told me I would publish something – but it would be contemporary fiction instead of science fiction, and it would be a book that honored Him.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed. I really didn’t want to write contemporary stories! I loved sci-fi and I wanted to write that. But I loved God more, and I recognized that this was “the Call” that so many writers long to receive. So I agreed. I dedicated my writing to Him, and told Him I’d write whatever stories He gave me.

I do still love science fiction and fantasy, and some day I hope He’ll open up a door for me to publish in that genre. But in the meantime, He has given me a deep love for contemporary humorous stories, too. I’ve gotten to the point that, given a choice between sci-fi and a humorous mystery, I’ll choose the mystery first!

What lies in the future for your personal ministry of speaking and singing?

I just signed with a speaker’s bureau, Glass Road Public Relations, and they’re taking me out of my comfort zone a bit by setting up speaking engagements all over the place! But I do love to speak. I learned my speaking skills during my career as a corporate director, and I used to love to present to large groups. But when the speeches were over, I’d say, “You know, Lord, if I could just talk about something with some lasting value, I could get so much more excited about it!” So now I have that opportunity.

And singing? Ah, I sing purely as a personal act of worship. Sometimes God creates an opportunity for me to sing in public, and I do it gratefully, but I don’t think I have a future in store as a singer. He did allow me to record a solo CD a year or so ago, and I really enjoyed that. I enjoy offering that CD at my speaking engagements, and sometimes people enjoy taking a copy home with them. Often people say, “When are you going to record another CD?” and I say, “That’s up to the Lord. If it was up to me, never.” I think I’m a better writer and speaker than I am a singer, so that’s where I’d rather spend my time. But I do enjoy singing in church on Sunday mornings.

Six books later….are you planning number 7?

Of course! I’m still working on books #5 and 6 at the moment – those are the second and third books in the Sister-to-Sister Series. And I’m researching another mystery, this one set around a barbeque festival in Kentucky. Then there’s the sequel to Just As I Am. That book is already written, waiting for the publisher to issue the contract and set a release date, but I’d like to write a third Mayla book to complete her story.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing books! As long as God keeps giving me stories, I’ll keep writing.

Ginny, you're such a blessing to aspiring writers and to those who listen to you when you speak. God does use you in wonderful ways. I am thrilled to call you my friend and my sister in Christ. Thank you so much for your time. We're really excited about the books. Can't wait to read them.

Please check out Ginny's website, sign up for her newsletter and you can even donate to The Voice of Joy Ministries sending Mayla to prison. Ginny's sight is www.virginiasmith.org

She'll be introducing her books through the website and through Christian bookstores across the country.