Alison Strobel Author Interview
Inspirational author Alison Strobel shares an in-depth look at her newest novel. Learn how she crafted the struggling newlyweds Amelia and Marcus, discover which personal experiences she tapped into to create some of the tension in this novel and don't miss her best advice for married couples. There's all this and more as the author goes behind the scenes of Composing Amelia.
RT Book Reviews: Composing Amelia follows a newlywed couple who have separated but when they get some unexpected news, they must reunite and rely on God to get through these troubled times. What drew you towards their story of young love tested?
Alison Strobel: It was the tests themselves, actually, that drew me to the idea of the story, and when I started brainstorming my characters I thought, “What could possibly make things worse for them?” (Sometimes you have to be a bit sadistic to be a novelist, what with having to put your characters through all the misery necessary to reach the level of tension required for a really good story!) I realized that a young marriage that hasn’t seen any true heartache or conflict yet would create a lot more tension than a solid marriage that has been tested before. Throw in the idea of two people who have gone after their dreams for all the wrong reasons, and you have two people who are seriously adrift in nearly every imaginable way.
RT: Amelia is a gifted pianist and her husband, Pastor Marcus, a skilled orator. What about these two very different sounding characters really made their relationship “work” in your mind?
AS: The saying “opposites attract” was pivotal in creating Amelia and Marcus. They each provide the other with something they feel they’re missing. My parents are a classic opposites attract couple, and I thought a lot about their marriage of nearly 40 years and how difficult and helpful those differences have been in making their relationship last this long. I think, with these kinds of relationships, the differences can “lock” two people together, like puzzle pieces. She needs his stability because her family was always such an unstable mess; he needs her enthusiasm and support because his father was so unsupportive. When two people are really similar, you don’t get that same dynamic.
RT: You have a “gift for characterization” says RT Senior Reviewer Melissa Parcel, so we’d love to know three of the details of Amelia and Marcus Sheffield’s personalities that helped the characters come to life?
AS: Awww, thank you so much, Melissa!
For each of them, I had one core concept in mind for each character that drove their creation. For Amelia, it was the fact that she was a musician, an artist. As an artist, she had a set of personality traits that really brought her to life for me: her sense of independence, her individuality, and her passion. For Marcus, the concept was ambition, and the traits that grew out of that concept were a tendency to set his expectations and priorities above those of others, a need to be right, and dogged determination to reach his goals. But, with each of them, I knew there needed to be an almost paradoxical trait that not only gave balance to their personalities so they didn’t become one-dimensional, but that also added to their internal tension throughout the story. For Marcus, it was the fact that he’s a typical “nice guy.” He’s not the kind of ambitious person who will step on people on his way to his goals, and that softer, more emotionally driven side of later proved to be even more influential in his life journey than his ambitious side did. For Amelia, it was her desire to not be controlled by her emotions. Whereas most artists allow themselves to be swayed by their feelings and even embrace their “moodiness,” Amelia tried not to give her emotions much power—so when she found herself being controlled by them, it really turned her world upside down.
RT: After Marcus heads to his new job in Nebraska, far away from Amelia in L.A., she struggles with intense feelings of depression. How did you make these scenes really compelling?
AS: Unfortunately I have had personal experience with depression and have seen the havoc it can wreak in a person’s life, and I think watching it unfold up-close gave me the ability to render those scenes with depth and accuracy. My best friend developed bipolar disorder in college, and for three of the four years that we lived together I watched her struggle to get a diagnosis, to complete school, to not give into the temptation to end her life. There were some really scary times, and it was actually that experience that led me to want to write a book that somehow featured the disorder and allowed people a glimpse into the mind and life of someone wrestling with it.
RT: In what ways do Marcus and Amelia celebrate their faith? And what challenges do they identify as ways that God is testing them?
AS: I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that both of them had a lot less to celebrate than they thought they did, and one of the concepts that I wanted to incorporate into the story was the idea of someone discovering their faith isn’t what they always thought it was. That was something that I personally struggled with for a very long time, and it’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve discovered what a relationship with God is really supposed to be like. And the challenges they experience—the jobs in different cities, Amelia’s depression—turn out to be less about God testing them and more about God revealing the dysfunction they both have without even knowing it.
RT: The catch phrase for Composing Amelia on your website is “Can a brand-new marriage withstand the weight of generations-old baggage?” — so we have to ask, can you share the best advice you’ve ever heard for newlyweds?
AS: Oh wow, interesting question! I once heard someone say that premarital counseling should end with the assumption that post-wedding counseling is going to start as soon as the couple is back from their honeymoon. The act of melding two lives together is not easy! And yet so many people think couples’ therapy is only for people who are on the brink of divorce. I think if couples did serious premarital counseling—I’m talking six months at the minimum—and then went back to that counselor once a month for their first year, we’d see a massive drop in the divorce rate. So many unhealthy dynamics that lead to divorce could be identified and dealt with early on, before they established themselves so deep into the foundation of the relationship that longevity is virtually impossible.
RT: On your website you share a list of the music that Amelia plays and references throughout Composing Amelia. If that list had to be carved down to her top five pieces, what would they be?
AS: Researching the music for the book was one of the best aspects of my prewriting routine for this book. Without a doubt, the Les Miserables soundtrack would be at the top of the list. I can’t express my love for this production, or its music, enough. I’ve got tickets to see it for the tenth time in September, and I pray it’s not the last time, either! After that would have to be Court and Spark—the whole album—by Joni Mitchell. (Okay, yes, I’m totally cheating by listing albums and not just single songs, but it’s just not possible to narrow it down!) Love, love, love that album. After that would be—yes, cheating again—Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes. Those two albums have so much emotion rendered in such complexity and depth, they bring tears to my eyes every time. Fourth—a single song!—Mozart's "Piano Sonata in C major No.15 K.545." I love the juxtaposition in styles that you hear in the different movements, and Mozart has always been a personal favorite because we share a birthday. For my fifth it would be really hard to choose, but in the end I think I’d go with the version I have linked on my site of “More Love to Thee, O Christ.” I am a sucker for a good gospel choir, and this version really gets my blood pumping.
RT: Composing Amelia is your sixth full-length novel, but certainly not your first fictional foray into dark territory. Over the past few years you’ve addressed such heavy topics as domestic abuse, the abrupt death of a spouse and even a heart transplant. Which of your books has been the most emotionally challenging for you?
AS: I think The Weight of Shadows was the most difficult to write, because the research required reading some really depressing material and having some really heartbreaking conversations with women who allowed me to interview them about their experiences. To see the effects of the damage that was done years, even decades ago, to their emotional and mental states was truly gut-wrenching. It was a little cathartic for me to be able to write a happy ending for that book, but it pained me to know I couldn’t fix anything for the women who still lived with the memories of their own abuse, or who were still in abusive relationships. One of the characters in the book says something to the effect of, “You can’t help an abused woman until she’s ready to be helped”—and it’s depressingly true. Talking to women who were still living with their abusers made me want to beat my head against the wall, but nothing you say will make them leave until they’ve reached the breaking point. I just kept praying that the things I said helped them get to that point a little more quickly so they’d get out sooner. That’s about the best anyone can do in that situation.
RT: In addition to writing your adult novels, you and your husband co-penned That’s Where God Is and That’s When I Talk to God for young readers. What is something that you learned through that experience?
AS: I learned that I actually can tell a story in less than 90,000 words! Seriously, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write children’s books that didn’t turn into chapter books, because brevity is not my strong suit. But my husband did an awesome job of outlining the content needed for each two page spread, and with that foundation in place I was able to rein myself in and keep the story within those confines.
RT: You are very active on Facebook and Twitter. Can you share one of your favorite interactions with a fan?
AS: I love my readers—they provide such amazing feedback and reviews. One of my favorite letters came from a young woman who read Reinventing Rachel (about a young woman who, after a lifetime as a Christian, decides to turn her back on the faith and pursue the kind of life led by her hedonistic best friend from childhood). She wrote and said she saw so much of herself in Rachel, and realized she’d been living a lie, and asked me to pray for her as she tried to find the strength to make things right. Talk about humbling! To know that God uses my stories to draw people back to Him is just amazing. It’s an honor to write for Him and to be used by Him.
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