I had the honor of meeting Stephenia and her husband at our first Writing for the Soul Conference in February 2009. I was aglow in the thrill of completing my Craftsman writing course and ready to take on the world. Steph was just stepping into the world of writing and had with her the first draft of what would become her debut novel.
The thing I admire most about Steph is her generous spirit and near-unshakeable determination to see things through to completion. When I think of writers who inspire me, Steph is one of the first faces that comes to mind. I had the opportunity to interview her this past week about her book, A Legacy of Lies, which is available now, about her writing life, and how she balances being a writer, a wife, and a mother. Enjoy! —Jen
Romance blooms and Suspense looms on a Midwestern Dude Ranch
J: This spring saw the launch of your debut novel A Legacy of Lies as an e-book through Desert Breeze Publishing. What has been the most exciting aspect of seeing your book in “print”? What has been the most terrifying?
S: The most exciting moment was searching for my own name on my Kindle and seeing my book cover come up. That was very thrilling, and somewhat strange!
The business side of writing terrifies me the most. There is a lot involved in trying to market a book. Social media, blog tours and keeping up and networking with other writers has been daunting to me. I’m constantly wondering if I’m doing the right things.
J: A Legacy of Lies is part romance, part supernatural suspense in which some very dark secrets in the lives of your main characters come to light. What can you tell us about how that initial story concept took shape?
S: I wanted my hero, Jim, to have some deep scars, personal issues and “demons” that haunted him. As the story unfolded, this idea took on a more tangible feel. While I don’t cross the line into saying things are actually after Jim, there are several chilling scenes where he experiences very realistic visions that are partly manifestations of his nightmares and partly a glimpse into the spiritual realm.
I also wanted to show that at some point all sins come to light. One deception builds on another, one lie leads to several more. Eventually one can drown in their own ocean of deceit. Their entire life can be built on lies, but sooner or later it gets to be too much, and the secrets cannot be hidden forever.
J: Do you have an absolute favorite character or scene?
That’s a tough one! I think one of my favorite scenes is when Sarah tries to save a calf from being trampled by the cattle herd crossing the muddy banks of the river during the drive. She faces off with an enraged bull, and in one instant realizes both her own strength and her utter weakness without God. It is a very powerful moment. When Jim rescues both Sarah and the calf, something in him breaks and he finally sees that he cares about more than his own anger and wounds. It is the first crack in his armor.
The Budding Writer
J: Were there other stories you wrote before A Legacy of Lies? What was it about this particular project that made you realize, I can’t let this one go?
S: This is actually the very first novel I ever tried to write. Although it did change several times during the long journey to publication and I almost gave up several times writing it! When it was finally finished, I thought that was all there was to it. I started looking into publishing. Then I realized how much I needed to learn! That first draft was awful, but I couldn’t let the story go. I didn’t want to let all that hard work go to waste so I just kept applying everything I learned. I don’t even know how many times I rewrote it. My characters grew, my plot deepened and my scenes became more vivid. I just kept working on it until it was right. I started looking for agents and publishers again. I kept receiving multiple rejections, so I decided to chalk this one up as a learning experience and start on the next one. A few months later I happened to come across a publisher I thought might work, so figured I’d give it one more shot. They actually liked my “different approach” and offered me a contract.
J: How much time would you say took place between the first day you started working on this story to launch day? What did you learn the most about yourself as a writer during this time? What did you learn about your writing?
S: It took about six years from the time I first started until the book was released. It took a long time to actually finish writing it (I had two boys eighteen months apart during this time!) and even longer to self-edit it. But I learned not to give up. I credit this mostly to my husband. Every time I got a bad critique or edited pages covered in red marks, I wanted to quit. I thought I couldn’t do it, but he kept encouraging me to keep digging. It was extremely difficult, but it made me stronger and more confident. The more I played with my writing, I found out I liked to add a little of the strange or unexplained to my stories and I stuck with it even when publishers said they’d only be interested if I pulled those elements out. I think I now have a better grasp on when to take critiques and learn from them and when to stay firm on what make my writing my own.
J: What is your favorite vice when writing? What is your worst distraction?
S: I can get so lost in my writing that I lose all track of time. This becomes problematic when there is a babysitter waiting to go home! My biggest distraction is my precious, but highly active preschoolers. It is nearly impossible to keep a train of thought with them climbing all over me.
J: When it comes to balancing writing and family, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to someone who is also working towards publication?
S: I invested in a babysitter. One day a week I get several hours of solid writing time. I think setting aside that time is vital. I made room in my budget for the sitter by cutting other things out and I protect this time and make it a priority. This saves me a lot of guilt (I can enjoy time with my family without thinking “I really need to be working on that project”) and frustration (I don’t have to get irritated at my children because they are so loud I can’t think straight). Even if your situation is different than mine, the idea is the same. If you wait for time to open up for writing, you may never find it. You have to come up with a plan with your family for when you are going to work on writing. Then protect that time and do your best to make the most of it.
J: You walk into a coffee shop and find a writer crying into her mocha after receiving yet another rejection. What would say to her?
S: I’d tell her I know how it feels. Empathy is much stronger than sympathy. As a writer your work is so much a part of you that it’s hard not to feel like you are rejected as well. After she sorted through the emotions of it, I’d tell her to dig into why that particular publisher rejected her. Was it writing issues? Then take some classes and get advice and critiques from other writers. Work on the manuscript and keep polishing it. If she thinks the writing is solid, it may be something else. Sometimes a rejection is just because they are full for the year or the story isn’t a fit for them. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t good. It just they are not the right publisher. It helps to study the situation and see what needs to be done next time. If writing is something she really wants, she can’t give up.
About Stephenia H. McGee
Stephenia H. McGee wrote her first story from a first-grade spelling list. Many more have followed, but A Legacy of Lies is her first novel. She is a member of the Christian Writers Guild and continues to work with other writers to hone her craft.
In addition to writing, Stephenia also enjoys painting and working with horses. She has a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in animal science and has worked and trained for several equestrian farms. She is the Chairman at Spirit Horse Ministries, and continues to use these skills in the youth programs.
She is a lifetime member of the AQHA and a member of the Fort Rosalie chapter of the DAR.
Stephenia is married to her best friend and greatest blessing, Jason, and they currently live in Mississippi with their two sons.