Last week in Part I, I reviewed Christine Kindberg's debut novel, The Means That Make Us Strangers. Today she shares her passion for racial equality and her path to publication. And as promised, I'll tell you how she and I are connected.
CAROL: Everyone always wants to know how author’s get their ideas for their stories. What experiences did you have growing up as a TCK (Third Culture Kid) that influenced the creation of this story? Any parts of this autobiographical? Why did you pick this particular time period?
CHRISTINE: I usually describe the book as exploring questions from my life in more extreme circumstances. A lot of Adelaide's feelings as she navigates the transition from Ethiopia to the US come straight from my experience as a TCK. The disorientation, the desperation to find people to connect with, the grief that sometimes attaches itself to little things, the embarrassment that comes from not understanding a new culture, the anger... I was definitely tapping into some of my own memories when writing about what Adelaide was feeling. I moved several times, back and forth between the US and Latin America, so I didn't have one long-term home the way that Adelaide does in Ethiopia, but I did transition to the US in high school. It's particularly rough moving when you're a teenager.
But the inspiration for the book actually came from a different angle. The original germ was a desire to explore the American rules around race and what would happen if someone broke those rules without realizing. As a TCK, I sometimes feel more comfortable with people who don't look like me, but skin color is too often the cause of deep divisions, changing everything from where someone is likely to grow up to where they go to church or school and how comfortable they feel shopping in certain stores. As a Christian, it matters to me when I see brothers and sisters with darker skin treated unfairly, and I want to know how to live faithfully as a white person, with all the privilege that comes from this skin color.
There are still lots of problems around racial divisions today, but I chose to set the book in the 1960s because I wanted to increase the danger around breaking the racial rules. The consequences for breaking racial barriers then was way higher than it is now, and I knew that would raise the stakes of the story to make it more interesting.
CAROL: Similarly, did any of the characters reflect people you know?
CHRISTINE: I didn't consciously base any characters on real people...but I've been told more than once that Adelaide sounds a lot like me! I did borrow the name Kinci from a nickname my best friend from high school gave herself.
CAROL: Why did you pick Ethiopia as the country where Adelaide's family lived?
CHRISTINE: My connection with Ethiopia came through research. I knew I wanted to give Adelaide connections to a rural village somewhere in Africa, and as I researched different countries, Ethiopia stood out as unique in ways I thought would be helpful for my book. It's the only country that wasn't colonized by Europeans, so I assumed Adelaide's white skin would carry fewer political connotations. It also has a history of Christianity that goes back for millenia, and that fascinated me. The more I learned about Ethiopia, the more I wanted to learn. And then the neighborhood I moved to in Chicago had a significant Ethiopian influence, with lots of Ethiopian restaurants, grocery stores, and cultural gatherings--and an Oromo church that met right across the street from my apartment. I read a lot and talked to people for my research, and hopefully someday I'll get to travel there!
CAROL: Why did you choose Greenville, South Carolina as the setting for the story? (I loved the reference to a few locales that I could relate to!).
CHRISTINE: Greenville has a history of teenagers being on the front lines of the push for Civil Rights, which I found pretty inspiring. This wasn't unique to Greenville, but Sterling High seems to have provided a training ground for emerging leaders. There were a few incidents in particular that caught my imagination, like the desegregation of the library in 1960 thanks to nine black teens who were willing to be arrested over a request for reading materials. The youngest was fifteen at the time. And the court case of Whittenberg v. Greenville County Public Schools, in 1963--spearheaded by the father of seventh-grader Elaine Whittenberg--gave me the historical context I needed for the first steps of school integration that form the backdrop of my book. Greenville is also a beautiful city that I loved exploring and learning more about!
CAROL: As a former Greenville, SC resident--I agree! To switch subjects, I loved the deep first person POV. Was that a choice that came naturally to you, or did you play around with several POV first?
CHRISTINE: Thanks for saying that! I'm glad you enjoyed it. The choice of first-person narration did come naturally, maybe because this was my first book and I unconsciously put a lot of myself in Adelaide. But I did a lot of refining and deepening of the POV as I revised. There were at least four rounds of major revisions, so plenty of opportunities to refine!
CAROL: As I said in my first blog, I’ve never read a self-published book that is so good as yours. Why did you choose to self-publish it? Can you share any aspects of that road to publication? You acknowledge several people who helped with the proofreading and editing process- they did a great job!
CHRISTINE Thank you again! One of the reasons I was willing to consider self-publishing is that my day job is at a publishing house (I'm a Spanish-language editor at Tyndale), and I knew I could get help from friends who are talented professionals. For a long time, I was pretty resistant to self-publishing, so it definitely wasn't my first choice. But after trying for about four years to get the attention of agents and editors, I finally decided to listen to the advice of a mentor and take the risk of publishing it myself. I knew it would be a ton of work to produce and promote a quality self-published book, but I didn't want this story to languish on my hard drive. I decided to dedicate a year or so to giving this a try and seeing what would happen. I filled out the paperwork to register my own imprint as a business, and I called up my friends to ask for help with the cover design, editing, proofreading, typesetting, etc. (I did pay them, for the record!) I also learned everything I could about how to promote a self-published book. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I'm glad I went ahead and tried.
CAROL: What response have you received? Is your audience mostly adults? Teens?
CHRISTINE: It's been such a privilege to hear from readers who have resonated with the story. And I've been surprised at how wide-ranging the readership has been! I've heard from thirteen-year-olds who loved it and from a ninety-seven-year-old who couldn't put it down. My audience is probably mostly adults who enjoy YA books, but their kids and grandkids seem to enjoy it too. I'm passionate about writing for a general audience, but this book seems to have gotten good traction in Christian circles, like when it won the Christy Award for Young Adult and the Honorable Mention for the Selah Award for Young Adult. Those awards have definitely helped with visibility!
CAROL: Did you Christian faith influence the story? If so, how?
CHRISTINE: I'd say everything I do is influenced by my Christian faith--at least, that's how I'm trying to live! My faith definitely influences what I think about the issues of racial justice and why I think everyone should be asking what it means to love our neighbors in a society that's deeply divided by race. That said, faith really isn't a part of the story in The Means That Make Us Strangers--church is mentioned a few times, but it's more of a social backdrop because faith isn't really on Adelaide's radar. Some of that was a conscious choice on my part, like when I chose to make Adelaide's dad an anthropologist rather than a missionary because I didn't want to have elements that could potentially be distracting for readers who aren't Christians. But mostly I wanted to be faithful to the story and true to the characters as I got to know them. With my next two books I wrestle a lot more with questions of faith through the stories, but whatever I'm working on, I'm passionate about writing books that come from a place of deep faith but aren't just for fellow Christians. My dream is to write honestly about faith and life in a way that fosters conversations about faith with people who would never walk into a church or a Christian bookstore.
CAROL: What’s next?
CHRISTINE: I'm currently waiting to hear back from potential publishers about my second book--I'm trying to go the traditional route this next time. Here's hoping there's news soon! That book is historical fiction set in England in the 1530s, about a nun who has to find a new purpose and way of living after the closing of monasteries and convents under Henry VIII.
And I'm about three chapters in on my third book, which is set in the southern tip of South America in the 1860s-1970s, about the first white family to settle among the indigenous people in that part of the world. Very different settings and time periods for these next books! But a lot of the themes will continue and carry over.
CAROL: Thank you Christine, for writing this beautiful book and providing a giveaway to one of my fortunate blog readers.
Christine and I emailed back and forth several times after I read her book. Since I read on her website that she went to Queens University in Charlotte, I asked her when she was in my hometown. She replied that she graduated from Covenant Day in 2005-2006 and I asked her if she knew my daughters, Lisa and Lori, who went to school there.
She wrote back:
"You’re Lisa’s mom! How funny—I was actually thinking of Lisa when I saw your name and that you were from Charlotte, but I thought there was little chance you’d be related. Lisa and I became friends the year I was at CDS, our senior year, and I remember going over to your house at least a couple of times. I was in the play that year with Lori."
It's a small world!
Christine would enjoy connecting with you on social media: