Family Fiction - Author Interview With Ann Marie Stewart

Debut novelist Ann Marie Stewart is beginning her literary career with a coming-of-age tale. Ann Marie’s protagonist is Abby, a 9-year-old girl, and readers see the world through her eyes as her family muddles through grief, despair, and loss. Abby takes us back to the summer of 1970 when everything changed for her family.

Where did the inspiration for this novel come from?

Stars in the Grass began as a short story entitled “Seeing from the Balcony” written in graduate school over twenty-five years ago. I wrote about my greatest fear: losing a child. At the time I wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. Writing about my fear of loss made me feel I could keep it from happening. And I knew if I could write Abby and her family into a place of hope, then we could all survive. Writing empowers.

Are any parts of the plot or characters pulled from real life?I was born the same year as Abby and I wanted to go “home” to my youth. Birch Bay, Washington, two miles from my grandparents’ farm, was my idyllic childhood vacation place. Lake Forest Park Presbyterian Church was the model for Bethel Springs Pres. Mr. Phelps was our youth group creation, and Melody, the minister’s daughter, really did sing so softly I was a standout soloist in the choir. Miss Patti is a close friend, Miss Mary Frances is our church librarian and Uncle Troy a combination of a childhood neighbor and the head usher at our local church in Virginia.

My dad told me as a little boy doing chores on the farm, he smelled something unusual and the next day the barn burned down, leaving him with guilt. It’s sad how a child can take on overwhelming and unnecessary guilt—much like Abby. My friends and family delight in finding tidbits from our lives tucked into the pages.

Inspired by setting, also I wanted to ask a question and let the characters live out the answer.

Shouldn’t we be safest in our father’s arms? If we are not, then how do we handle the guilt, grief, doubt, and fear? Can we come out the other side of the tunnel stronger?

What influences your writing the most?

I love to write about feelings we don’t talk about but are universal and we all share, memories that are not exact, but resonate with everyone, and people we all see from our past. I love symbolism (clocks, stars, wheels) I am influenced by things that trouble or intrigue and I like to take on a tough subject and help readers wrestle with it.

Can you describe your plot in one sentence?

When the McAndrews’ idyllic family vacation turns tragic, they have to wrestle with questions of faith and family when guilt and grief threaten to tear them apart.

Is this novel part of a series? If so, what are some overarching themes in the series?

This is a stand-alone novel unless I learn more about what happens to Abby.

Can you tell us about any research you did for this novel?

I researched Bellingham’s emergency medicine 1970. I spoke with Clock Docs for inspiration and accuracy. I needed to brush up on my football signals, too!

Who is your favorite character in the book?

Oh, that’s tough. I love so many of them, which is why I turned the short story into a novel. I really love how the mother’s character develops despite and through her tragedy. I am endeared to the comforting Patti, Matt is a hero in his own way, but Abby is the voice I love to listen to.

What makes your protagonist an interesting character?

Few novels are the voice of a 9-year-old girl. The reader can tell she is suffering even when she’s hiding it to help her family. She’s perceptive, hopeful, and her observations are so true, I feel I am her.

Can you tell us about your writing process?

I don’t outline, I just write. I let the words pour out and sometimes I’m not sure what’s going to happen to a character. But for my next novel I am doing some outlining because there is an order needed to preserve tension and mystery and to keep the plot twists unpredictable.

Editing and revising are my favorite parts of the process. Getting the initial stuff down on the page is the most cumbersome for me but I could read and edit and revise forever, always finding ways to improve a piece. I also love to be edited and critiqued and have editors slash away with a red pen.

I am most productive if I get up early and write 1,000 words without looking at social media and without editing. I also love writing in the quiet of the night where long chunks of time can go by and it feels like seconds. I’ve also learned to write my stories in my head as I try to fall asleep. I hear the characters talk...