At the 2014 American Christian Fiction Writers conference in St. Louis, RT reviewer Leslie McKee chatted with historical Christian fiction writer Kristry Cambron. Cambron’s second in her Hidden Masterpieces series, A Sparrow in Terezin (an RT Top Pick!), releases tomorrow. We talked with the author about art, war and writing on her iPhone.
You had a powerful debut with The Butterfly and the Violin, earning you an RT Top Pick! What made you focus on the prisoners’ artwork, which shows a beauty not often associated with concentration camps?
I have an art history degree — art history research writing. I’m proud of the fact that it took me 13 years to get my undergrad degree. My husband and I married very young, and I didn’t want school debts, so we paid every semester, so I really got the chance to be submerged in it. I was in the classroom and my professor started to put these images up on the screen. I was in a modern art classroom, so it was World War II. The images were so strikingly beautiful … You had this pure beauty of nature mixed with guards standing over prisoners, watching them. We were just so taken aback. I figured this was something from a famous artist of the day. Our professor said this was all art created by prisoners within the concentration camp. If caught, they risked death. How could these brave heroes want to create so much, how could God put that on their heart, that they would risk death? When they see it all around them, it’s like they were compelled to create.
This was more than 10 years ago, and the idea never left my heart. So I packed it away somewhere and wondered what God was going to do with that. I also write Regencies. So the way that this book came about was that I was meeting with a publisher and I thought, “Great. If I get a yes, then I’m a Regency author. Here we go. But if I get a no, then when I’m on maternity leave I’m going to write this World War II book.” I think I was a little tentative, as the subject matter deserves such reverence and respect for what the people went through, and I was a little nervous to write it. So I went on maternity leave, and this is kind of funny. Most of the book was written on my iPhone! At HarperCollins, they kind of call me ‘iPhone writer,’ because that’s the way I prefer to write. I use the generic notes app on the phone and email it to myself. The book was done in eight weeks.
Do you think that future books will continue to focus on WWII, or will you branch out?
I plan to stay with World War II, but I’d also like to branch out, and possibly do World War I [and] Edwardian. I had a really fun idea around the 1920s jazz age and horseracing. I live in the Louisville, Kentucky, area, so how cool would that be, to tie in the Derby? So those are some things I’m thinking about and may pursue in the future, but I will definitely stay historical. My heart just came alive when I started writing historicals.
Your characters are able to find God in the midst of personal difficulties, as you did during your father’s battle with leukemia. Do you have a particular scripture verse that is meaningful to you that guides your writing?
I do. Every book I have signed has Joshua 1:9, my dad’s favorite verse. And this is interesting. In the last couple of years of my dad’s life, he got baptized at 60 years old. He had been a believer just about his entire life, but a follower in the last two years. He began ministering to me when I was struggling with the fact that my daddy was going through chemo treatments. He mentioned Joshua 1:9. And I thought, “If the man who was going through chemo treatments is praying this to me, then that says something.”
What do you think of some of the current trends in the publishing industry?
I think one of the things that I had to learn really quickly is that if you want to be an author, it’s more than just learning your craft and putting your books out there. Obviously you want to connect with your readers. And the Christian fiction writers, we really want to connect to their eternity, to their walk with God, and that’s really of the utmost importance. But I also learned really quickly that you need to connect with your readers in a variety of ways: social media, in person, book signings, or connecting with different retailers.
The industry is really changing with the different generations. There are some people who are traditionalists like me, and they like to have a book in their hand. And then there are others who are interested in ebooks. And how does indie fit in with this? I kind of like the changes. I come from corporate America, so I’m used to rolling with the times. The biggest things I’ve had to learn are social media presence and marketing. I need to find a way to connect with my readers, and in unique ways as well.
What advice do you have for new authors?
My first year (at the ACFW conference), I stood outside that pitch room and I was a little bit terrified. I remember talking with a lady and asking her if this was her first time. She said she had 13 books out, and I about passed out right there. I thought there was no way I could do this. But the advice I would have is to start with prayer, continue with prayer and finish with prayer. The Lord will direct every single newbie author.
The second thing I would say, not to sound all philosophical, would be to know yourself. Know what the Lord wants you to write and is calling you to write. Interesting thing. When I spoke with my agent about writing a World War II book, she told me that World War II was not really selling right now. I still felt it was what I was supposed to write, and I knew my heart really wanted to write this story. It ended up being The Butterfly and the Violin. World War II books really started to gain some traction, and I was really glad that I followed my heart. I would also say to expect hard work. I’m very candid about the fact that there were many things that my family had to give up, such as sleep. I didn’t sleep for four years! We have a house, we have a mortgage, and I had a job working 60 or 70 hours a week, and I wrote in the margins. Don’t be afraid to fail fast. There are going to be a lot of rejections. I just kind of waved it off. My husband would say, “It’s not a no, it’s a not yet and not here. We’re going to keep doing what God wants us to do, and we’re confident that he has a place for us.”
Also, reach out. Make friends. In this industry, I was astounded by the amount of love I received when I walked into ACFW. I’m not surprised now. But when I first walked in, I thought, “These authors are so successful. They don’t have to talk to me!” But they just welcomed me right in. And I think that any newbie author would find that. I was quite surprised. They will find a community that wants to support and uplift them. So I would encourage them to reach out to others.
What can you tell me about A Sparrow in Terezin?
A Sparrow in Terezin is a continuation, so it does follow the contemporary characters from the first book. But the historical thread introduces a couple of new characters. They have an experience in not only 1940s London during the blitz, but also the art is centered on the children’s art of Terezin, if you know anything of the Terezin ghetto, which is north of Prague.
There is a book that really inspired me during my undergraduate studies, I Never Another Butterfly. It was the art of some 15,000 children who passed through this really unique camp. It was a ghetto, a concentration camp, a Gestapo prison, and it was really a transport center, so there would be elderly and children that would come through this camp and then go to the killing centers. It was a propaganda camp for the Nazis. Fewer than 100 of the children are believed to have survived. So the book I’m telling you about has watercolors, sketches, poetry and music written by these little children. I was so taken with the idea of the teachers and guardians who were there and how could they infuse hope in these children, knowing what was going to happen to them. So the main character becomes an art teacher within Terezin. I believe this could be read as a stand alone, as there are a couple of clues to the first story. I really wanted to tie in 1940s London and the blitz, and the research was just awesome. At times, the research was very difficult about the children, as I have three young children myself. I occasionally had to step away.
You can pick up A Sparrow in Terezin, available digitally and in print tomorrow. For more Christian fiction, visit our Everything Inspirational page.