Angela Benson made her debut as an author with the publication of Bands of Gold in 1994. This was quickly followed by four more romance novels and a novella: For All Time (1995); “Friend and Lover” in the Holiday Cheer anthology (1995); Between the Lines (1996); The Way Home (1997) and The Nicest Guy in America (1997) – all of which were published by Pinnacle Arabesque.
Angela Benson has also written a nonfiction book about the art and craft of writing, Telling the Tale: The African-American Fiction Writers Guide (Berkeley Publishers, 2000).
Her most recent work includes two Christian romances – Awakening Mercy (Tyndale House Publishers, 2000) and Abiding Hope (Tyndale House Publishers, 2001) — as well as one mainstream Christian fiction title, The Amen Sisters (Walk Worthy Press/Grand Central Publishing, 2005/2007).
In a recent interview, Angela Benson spoke about her writing.
When did you start writing?
My earliest memory of writing fiction is from Ms. Milazo’s fifth grade English class. We wrote short stories each week and read them aloud the class. My classmates loved my stories and always clapped after I finished reading them, which made me feel really good about myself and what I’d written.
The story that made me the all-time class favorite was, “My Interview with the Jackson Five.” This was a pretty special story for me, since I had a very strong crush on Jermaine Jackson at the time. Okay, now I’ve dated myself.
How did decide you wanted to be a published writer?
I decided that becoming a published author was a realistic goal in 1992 at a Romantic Times Magazine Readers and Writers Convention. I remember sitting in a workshop led by three published romance writers. As I listened to them talk about how they wrote their stories, the thought that filled my mind was, “They don’t look any smarter than I am. If they can write a book, so can I.”
Of course, the actual experience of writing a book turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be, but I persevered. After that convention, I went back home, joined the local chapter of Romance Writers of America(RWA) and began my first novel. That novel, which I started in early 1992, was completed in early 1993, sold to Arabesque in late 1993, and arrived in bookstores in late 1994.
How would you describe the writing you are doing?
My work is characterized as faith-based fiction, Christian fiction and inspirational fiction. I write stories in which the Christian faith of the characters plays an integral role. For example, Francine Amen, the central character in The Amen Sisters, is forced to look closely at what she believes and why after she learns that the religious leaders she loved and trusted are charlatans. She wonders how genuine her faith really is if she couldn’t detect the blatant dishonesty of those she followed. So she begins a journey of finding and living her faith, not the faith of the church leaders.
Who is your target audience?
On the surface, it would seem that my target audience is churched African-American women. While that is a key demographic for me, in reality, anybody who enjoys reading stories about people of faith dealing with today’s problems will enjoy The Amen Sisters. I even encourage those unfamiliar with Christian fiction to pick up a copy. They’ll find a compelling and realistic story that demonstrates the consequences of individual actions, played out on a canvas painted in God’s love.
I wanted to write stories in which my characters had a faith life because I think that’s the reality of the lives we live each day. Faith, church and religion have long played a pivotal role in the American family and in the African-American community. Writing stories void of those elements is writing stories that are not truly reflective of our lives.
In the writing you are doing, who would you say has influenced you most?
I read so much and so widely that it’s difficult to answer that question. Sharon Ewell Foster’s Passing by Samaria touched me deeply. The story, which had racism as one of its themes, showed me how powerful Christian fiction can be in helping us see ourselves and our hypocrisies.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
I had a very negative church experience some years back and I’ve always wanted to write about how a person recovers from such an experience. I didn’t experience exactly what the characters in The Amen Sisters experienced but I did feel their same sense of hurt and betrayal.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
It’s the same with each book. I love it when the book is flowing and the words just come and I love it when the book is finished. I hate the uncertainty and insecurity I feel with each book when the words aren’t flowing and I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish the book. I’ve learned to tolerate both ends of the spectrum because they make up my process.
I also have to continually remind myself that even though my stories are told from my viewpoint, they are not about me. The story belongs to the characters. I have to trust them and be true to the telling of their story. The biggest challenge I had with The Amen Sisters was writing characters that I did not like, could not kill off, and could not redeem. The upside is that the presence of those characters made my story realistic. Real life is not tidy, and we don’t always get to see the “bad” guy get his due.
Do you write everyday?
I do, but much of my writing is academic writing. I have a full-time job as a university professor so my fiction writing time is limited. I write fiction in spurts around semester and summer breaks. Ideally, I’ll draft the outline and proposal (the first three chapters) during Christmas break and then finish the story during summer break.
How long did it take you to write The Amen Sisters?
The Amen Sisters took the long road to publication. The idea for this book came to me in 1990, about the time that I was able to start talking about the abusive church situation I had experienced a few years earlier. I had a story I wanted to tell, but I had no idea I’d tell it in a novel. I wasn’t even a published author at the time!
The Amen Sisters, the novel, began in 2001 as Enduring Love, the third book in the Genesis House Christian romance series that I was writing for Tyndale House. Tyndale loved the first book in the series, Awakening Mercy, and thought I had perfectly hit the tone they wanted in a Christian romance novel.
Their response to Abiding Hope, the second book in the series, was not as enthusiastic. They sent it back to me with the recommendation that I make it more romance-y, more like Awakening Mercy. That’s when I began to wonder whether I had another Christian romance in me. Thankfully, I was able to revise Abiding Hope enough to make it the Christian romance my publisher and readers expected.
When I turned in Enduring Love a year later, my publisher and I knew we were at the end of our road together. The book had a romantic element but it was definitely not a romance along the lines of Awakening Mercy and Abiding Hope. Enduring Love was the first incarnation of The Amen Sisters.
The good news is that around this time the publisher at Walk Worthy Press was interested in having me do women’s fiction for her new publishing venture with Warner Books. Seemed like at perfect match, right?
Well, sorta. Though my new publisher and I talked about what a women’s fiction version of Enduring Love would look like, it became apparent after about a year of revisions that we were miles apart in our visions for the book. At the end of my rope, I made a fateful call to my new publisher, fully prepared to terminate the contract and re-pay the advance. Imagine my surprise when my publisher said, “Write your book, Angela,” or some words to that effect. Those words freed me up, and seven months later, I turned in The Amen Sisters.
Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult
I didn’t want to write a story that hinged on the sensationalism of the topic of sexual predators in the church. There are a lot of stories out there that already do this, stories that focus on the bad acts of some preacher. I wanted to write a story that honored those who were, and are, preyed upon. So The Amen Sisters does not take the reader into the bad acts of pastors and ministry leaders; it shows the far-reaching impact of those acts as well as the struggle of those affected to recover from the blow.
Writing The Amen Sisters was a fulfilling experience for me because the story is my tribute to survivors of church abuse. I tell their story, a story I don’t think many of us think much about. We see the ministers on television who give their repentance sermons and we get to hear the stories of how God helped them pull their lives back together, but we never hear about the broken parishioners who get caught in the middle of the chaos. I wanted to write about those broken people to show that they do exist and to show how God heals their hurt and restores their faith. People laugh at the things that go on in some churches. I want The Amen Sisters to be a reminder of all the people who are hurt by the nonsense.
What sets the book apart from other things you have written?
While The Amen Sisters has a romance element, it’s not a romance novel. The story is built around different types of relationships: siblings, husband and wives, mentors and mentees, friends and lovers.
What will your next book be about?
My next book, Up Pops the Devil, will be published by HarperCollins in September 2008. It’s the story of “Preacher” Winters and the four women — his fiancee’, his sister, his mentor’s wife, and his mentor’s sister — who complicate his re-entry into society as a law-abiding Christian man after being incarcerated for two years for drug trafficking. It’s a fun book that demonstrates how individual decisions have community effects. The devil even makes an appearance.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Enduring. Building a readership takes time and planning. While some writers “pop” with their first or second book, most writers build their readership slowly one book at a time.
This article is scheduled to appear on Conversations with Writers.