As promised, here is an interview with Kersten Hamilton, author of the beloved A Life of faith Millie Keith and Laylie Colbert series, and many others!
How did you get to write the Millie books?
It was providence. MCP contacted my agent when another writer dropped out of the project without turning in the first Millie book, and she thought of me. I was familiar with the Elsie Dinsmore book by Martha Finley, the author of the book I would be working on. I agreed to ‘update the language’ of the original story even though time was short–they needed to go to press in 60 days! I quickly found out that providence hands you opportunities that look at first like disasters.
The Mildred books turned out to be very different from the Elsie Dinsmore books. I was so unsettled by them that I could not in good conscience give them to readers in ‘updated language.’ For an example of exactly what unsettled me you can read an excerpt in an interview I did with Abigail on A Time 2 Write.
After much prayer, I told MCP that I couldn’t do what they wanted. But I could give them a story. It would mean writing at novel in thirty days.
What was your favorite part about writing the Millie books?
Finding out just what I was capable of. I had to write fast, and I had never written a full-length novel before!
Which character(s) was your favorite?
Aunt Wealthy was my personal favorite to write. But I will always love Celestia Ann and Reverend Lord because I rescued them from being terrible characters and gave them a very fun story.
How much of the original Millie series did you read and follow?
I tried to read the whole series, but I must confess to skimming after the first four books. I had to keep the names, elements of the timeline and certain locations in instances where the story line dovetailed with the Elsie Dinsmore series.
Which characters were your own inventions?
Well…all of them, really. I took the names and appearance of the characters from the original books as if they were muffin tins, filled them up with new personalities and gave them new adventures.
Where did you get your inspiration for the series?
George McDonald has always been my greatest inspiration. He wrote to baptize imaginations. I write to tune my reader’s hearts to the heart of God.
But when I was looking for madcap girl adventure, I turned to Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite series ever!
How long did it take you to write the series?
I had one month for the first book. After that, it was a book every four months. The series was finished in just under two and a half years. I was with the characters ten or twelve hours a day, and they became very, very real to me.
You mentioned how Millie enjoys Ivanhoe a lot. Is that a book you also enjoy?
It is. I have always liked stories of knights and chivalry. I like stories of King Arthur and his knights, too.
Where did you get the inspiration for your characters with all their uniqueness?
They’re formed from bits and pieces of me, my family and my friends. I make sure that I mix and shake the bits and pieces well so that nobody can recognize themselves, though.
How did you think of the exciting events, like the bustle catching on fire or the runaway stagecoach?
At lot of them were real events I found in historical journals. But not all.
Was it difficult to write the Laylie book after the Millie books?
It was extremely difficult for two reasons. First, because the publisher wanted the story to cover the same period in Laylie’s life that was covered in the book where she meets Millie. That part of the story had been told and I had to tell it again. Second, and much more difficult, was the research I needed to do to write about slavery. I read pro–slavery sermons and apologetics, anti–slavery sermons and Abolitionist papers, diaries and memoirs of plantation owners and southern whites, and hundreds of slave narratives. It was painful to see Christians writing about the ‘good’ of holding others as chattel slaves. I had to understand all of it if I was going to tackle slavery in a book. It is at writer’s job to tell the truth. What I read about was so much more horrible than I could put into a book that would be read by children. I have never cried so hard researching or writing a book. I hope it opens minds and changes hearts. Writing it changed my life.
Did you plan on writing more Laylie books?
I did. I planned Laylie as an eight-book series because I loved her very much. I had done so much research, and I had so much to say about how we as Christians need to examine our culture and take a stand for Christ. About how our whole society–even our churches–may tell us we are wrong when we do. Abolitionists were stoned and imprisoned by people who claimed to be following Jesus. The Bible was twisted to support slavery and all its horrors. The Bible can be twisted today until it seems to support things that are very far from what Jesus would have us do. We need to be careful and thoughtful about our times.
What was your favorite part about writing the Laylie book, and who was your favorite character?
As with the Millie books, my favorite part was exploring the characters I was creating. I liked Luke the best. He had an awesome story arc—most of it stayed in my mind, though, because I never got to write the books.
When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
I have known from the time I was six years old that I wanted to be an author. It hasn’t been easy, though. I am dyslexic, dysgraphic, and dropped out after my freshman year of high school. I could not achieve my dream without years and years and years of work.
How was your publishing journey?
By the time I was 22 years old, I had been working on becoming a writer for lots years. I had stacks and stacks of rejections slips, and I was miserably unpublished. I was also a new Christian. One day I realized that becoming a published author had become an obsession with me. I spent more time worrying about it than I did on my relationship with God.
So I gave up writing *forever*. I meant it, too, and felt very holy and righteous giving up my hearts dream. I was very faithful for a couple of years. No writing. Not at a word. And I was miserable. Then one day my husband bought me a word processor. Now, he didn’t know about my desire to be a writer. He didn’t know why he bought the word processor. He just saw it and thought of me.
I said, okay. Maybe this is a sign from God. Maybe He wanted me to write. I threw a fleece before the Heavenly Papa: I’d write one thing. If it didn’t sell, it was over. I sent the story I wrote to Pockets magazine. Within two weeks, I had my first contract. God is merciful to dumb baby Christians who give up things He never asked them to give up.
Filled with hope and assurance of my calling, I wrote and wrote and wrote—and nothing else sold. For years.
Imagine if someone felt called be a doctor, so they picked up at scalpel and started cutting. It would be at disaster. Yeah. It was like that. I had to hone my skills, and I had so, so much to learn. I tripped over my ego and fell flat on my face by expecting the publishing world to change to accommodate my stories, no matter how long my picture books or how short my novels. I thought that the ability to write well should be enough. Well. It does not matter how wonderful your writing is if it does not fit the needed format, it will not be published. I finally got that through my head.
So when a friend told me about a company called Hosanna in my hometown that wanted children’s Bible story tapes, I studied scriptwriting and then gave it my best. I wrote a mini-musical about the prodigal son. The editor was kind enough to give me an appointment. I sat down across her desk and explained that I’d heard she needed writers.
She asked if I had any samples. I handed her my script. She said, “Oh, no! I just finished the story of the prodigal son. But let me take a look anyway.”
She read silently for a few moments while I died inside. Then [she] pulled her script out of the drawer and tore it up. I had the job. It was my first “big” sale, and I was very excited.
I rushed home and called my husband to ask him out to a celebration lunch. He had a meeting. I called my best friend. She was hosting at Tupperware party. So I put my children down for their naps and tried to celebrate by myself. I was scraping a spoon full of chocolate chunk ice cream out of [a] crushed carton I found in the bottom of the freezer when my husband called back. He had canceled his meeting and was coming home for a late lunch!
I got the kids up, and we went to a Mexican restaurant where I ordered whatever I wanted and talked about all my writing hopes and dreams. When we requested for the bill, the waiter said, “It’s been taken care of. The man who was sitting in the corner over there asked me to give you this.”
He handed me a note that said, “Your oldest boy looks so much like my oldest son used to look that I want to bless you a little. May God bless you also, and give you the wisdom and patience you need to raise your children the way He wants. From a servant of His, with love.”
God paid for the celebration meal!
What genre(s) do you like to write best?
Whatever I am writing at the moment. But I know what I don’t like. Most of my books contain an element of ‘Mystical Realism’ if you will – an acknowledgment that there is something beyond the physical world that we can see and touch. I have tried writing books without it but it just isn’t any fun. It doesn’t feel real to me to leave the spiritual part out of the worlds I create.
What other things do you enjoy besides writing?
It changes season to season. Right now, I like theology, solitude, yoga, and watching Korean dramas.
I loved reading your bio and all the adventurous things you did. Do you have a funny story you’d be willing to share?
I had lots of pets. One, Terrible Tom, was an alley cat I met when I was walking cinderblock walls one day. Tom had one eye and at a ragged ear, and had lost all of the hair on his chin to mange. Still, he was a good friend of mine. He’d follow me to school and yowl outside the window until the teacher sent me home. If I went into a room, Tom would try to open the door and come after me. One day he managed to open the bathroom door while I was in the tub. He leaped in to save me, and bit and clawed me until I got out of the water! Then he purred and patted me with his paws to make sure I was alright.
Out of all the places you’ve traveled which did you like best?
I don’t like the places as much as I like the travel. One of my dreams is to be able to write on trains so that every time I look up, I am somewhere different.
What is your favorite part about being a writer?
The solitude, and the time I spend talking to God about plot. And all of the travel I do in my mind!
Do you have any advice for young authors?
Don’t be afraid to struggle with the wild ideas that are in you. In fact, the scarier your idea is, the harder the struggle, the better the book that comes out of it will be. And don’t give up.
Thank you for interviewing me, Hannah!