Interview with Christa Ann Banister

Around the World in 80 Dates: Confessions of a Serial Dater by Christa Ann BanisterSo apparently friends publishing novels is a trend. Another writer friend, Christa Banister, has a new novel coming out next week, Around the World in 80 Dates: Confessions of a Serial Dater. Christa was my editor when I wrote reviews for CCM magazine, then she joined the freelance world and now lives within a mile or two of me in St. Paul (and we have still not met face to face).

I think I had heard about her novel-publishing success but had forgotten about it. Then something referencing Christa and her novel came across my desk and I realized another friend was about to be a published author.

So I thought we better put Christa through the ten question grill:

1) Your first novel–wow. What’s it feel like to accomplish every aspiring writer’s dream? Has it always been your dream to write fiction?

To say it’s surreal is probably the biggest cliché in the book. But that’s exactly how it feels to me. Ever since I read my first Judy Blume book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, back in elementary school, I thought making up characters and storylines would be the best job in the world. But of course, you can’t snap your fingers and get a book deal, so I feel extremely blessed that NavPress enjoyed my work and wanted to publish my book. In fact, when I received my final copies of Around the World in 80 Dates the other day, I still freaked out a little. I knew I’d done the work, but I still couldn’t believe I was holding my very own novel in my hands. It was such an amazing feeling.

2) I see you’re entering the swarming waters of chick lit–not exactly my choice genre–tell us, is your novel as vacuous as all the stories about the rise of chick lit would have us believe, or is there more to it than that? And, more importantly, can I guy like me get away with reading this book without feeling too emasculated?

I’ll admit, chick lit, like many girls’ favorite chick flicks, isn’t exactly Dostoyevesky. But I was intentional about having substance and style in Around the World in 80 Dates. The book’s protagonist, Sydney Alexander’s main goal in life isn’t to get the biggest closet full of Manolos or to slim down to a size 2. Like so many Christian singles, she’s juggling a full life filled with constant decisions about God’s calling, her career, and what’s often the most puzzling and complex component–relationships. And because there’s so many anomalies that are unique to the world of Christian dating, there’s plenty of humor in the process, which makes the book a lot of fun to read, while offering significant takeaway value.

As for whether you’d enjoy it while not feeling too emasculated, let me just say this, if my husband Will, who is usually reading heavy theology or Dave Eggers on a lighter reading day loves it (and impartially so), so will you!

3) Not only is it chick lit, it’s Christian chick lit. Has that been hard for people to take? Or is the world ready for a Christian Bridget Jones?

Well, I’m not sure the world could handle a “Christian” Bridget Jones. Bridget Jones was such a standout, well-written character, but as anyone who has read the books or seen the movies knows, what makes Bridget entertaining and funny to the masses wasn’t her counter-culture behavior. Quite the opposite, actually. Bridget was known for her constant smoking, propensity for drowning her sorrows in alcohol and extreme awkwardness in social situations that usually involves salty language and compromised morals.

So to take a character like that and try to “Christian-ize” her would just come off as contrived, second-rate and silly. Thankfully, faith-informed authors like Robin Jones Gunn and Kristin Billerbeck have paved the way with chick-lit that wasn’t simply Bridget Jones with a Bible. And that’s what I also set to do with Around the World in 80 Dates–create a heroine that was plucky, funny and memorable but not someone who simply goes around quoting Scripture when life gets tough. She’s a real girl with real struggles, and I want readers to be encouraged that even when you serve God, life still gets sticky. Very sticky–especially when you’re in relationships.

4) The dreaded Christian novelist question–what makes fiction Christian? Did you face any kind of content limitations (or requirements) writing for a Christian publisher? Will we have a dramatic conversion scene? Did you struggle with the whole Christian fiction categorization, or was that just part of the deal?

I’m a Christian, so my faith can’t help but inform my work. But when it comes right down to it, a book is just a book. It doesn’t have a soul, and it won’t be accountable for its life on judgment day like I will be.

I still don’t really understand the need for categorization of art, whether it’s books, movies or music. I mean when Madonna makes an album or writes one of her children’s books, they don’t categorize it as a Kabbalah book because of her spiritual beliefs.

But that thought aside, it really helps some people to have a clear idea of what they’re getting in their entertainment. Since I have a decidedly Christian worldview, as do the majority of the characters in my book, I’m happy that Around the World in 80 Dates is readily available in the Christian fiction section, in Christian bookstores, etc.

Because its message isn’t cut from the same moral cloth as its mainstream counterparts, however, I’m also thrilled that it’s also available at Borders, Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart, too, because I feel that people who don’t necessarily believe what I do spiritually can still relate to the struggles and heartbreaks of dating. Plus, they may just be surprised to realize how our respective life struggles really aren’t all that different. How being a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean we’re off in some alternate reality–a pre-conceived notion I’m always happy to help dispel.

And for the record, I wasn’t required to change one word of my manuscript for any content-related reason (and there are pop culture references aplenty), and there’s no dramatic conversion scene in the book. Basically, NavPress is great publisher to work with. I felt like they really got “me” and the spirit of my book, which is a wonderful thing because I’m not someone who wants to beat people over the head with the Bible.

5) And how autobiographical is Around the World in 80 Dates? I see a young woman in her late 20s, working as a writer, living in the Twin Cities, a Christian… hmm. I’ll assume names were changed to protect the quasi-innocent, but will they recognize themselves?

I think all writers borrow from their life experiences, and I’m no exception. Before I met my husband, Will, my dating experiences were basically one train wreck after another, so I definitely had the fuel to write a book like this.

A friend of mine from my Nashville days, Jesse Butterworth, who used to play in a band called Daily Planet, actually dared me to write this book because he thought my stories were so funny. So I did, and I definitely had to change the names (and situations) to protect the guilty. The only people who’ll know which character he/she inspired in Around the World in 80 Dates is my sister, Lindsey, who gave Samantha her spunk, and my hubby because he was the muse for the story’s happy ending.

6) As an aspiring novelist myself, I’m eager to get down to the behind-the-scenes stuff. How’d you land your book deal? And what kind of a deal is it? Are Christian chick lit novelists retiring early these days? (I’ll assume like most authors the answer is a resounding no, but give us a taste)

After the aforementioned dare from my pal Jesse (who also wrote a book for Waterbrook Press), I started writing a few ideas down for Around the World in 80 Dates about five years ago. Ideas soon evolved into sample chapters, and I sent out two proposals (with four sample chapters and a quick introduction) to people I knew in publishing as a result of my time at CCM magazine in Nashville, where I worked as a writer and editor for five-and-a-half years. Like the music business, the book world is all about connections, connections, connections. Many publishers don’t accept unsolicited proposals, manuscripts, etc., so I had to be referred by friends who already had book deals to even get my foot in the door. And even with a foot in the door, I had to be patient (not exactly my strong suit).

Basically, I waited for months and months and did all sorts of follow up before I’d get the sorry-but-we-just-can’t-do-anything-with-you-at-this-time-but-keep-working-at-it rejection e-mail. That happened twice, but I persevered and kept tweaking my sample chapters until I was really happy with them, and they eventually made their way to NavPress via my friend (and fellow author) Matthew Paul Turner.

After Matthew’s NavPress contact moved on to another publisher, the new editorial assistant at Nav stumbled across my manuscript in her pile of papers, read it and really loved it. She even sent me an e-mail to that effect the next day and really began lobbying for it to get published. So of course, I got really, really excited. But that was only the beginning of the process. After a couple of months filled with phone calls and proposal forms to fill out, not to mention a couple different committee meetings at NavPress, they offered me a two book deal (with an option for a third) in October 2006. Needless to say, the third time was the charm.

After the papers were signed, I couldn’t even begin to express how excited I was. So after ample celebrating, I went to work and finished Around the World in 80 Dates, a long, intense and amazing process that fulfilled one of my greatest writing dreams.

But as anyone who writes Christian fiction, or any fiction for that matter knows, you don’t write books because you want to get rich. Unless you’re one of Oprah’s coveted book club selections, a trust fund baby or have a spouse who makes some serious cash, it probably won’t be all you do to make ends meet. While writing Around the World in 80 Dates and its sequel, I’ve still kept my day job as a full-time freelance writer/critic for a slew of publications. So basically, I’m on deadline all the time. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, well, unless my book miraculously made it on the fast track to Oprah or something.

7) What with Tivo, the Internets and Wiis, reading just isn’t a popular pastime these days. What kind of promotional plans do you have in place to make sure your book isn’t forgotten? Are you doing anything unique and different? In your experience with publishers, what are they doing these days to grab the attention of potential readers?

You’re right, there’s a million cool things to compete for people’s attention these days. I have an unexpectedly bad Facebook addiction myself. But in all seriousness, you can use the technology to your advantage. Thanks to web sites like MySpace, Facebook and blogs, there are avenues for promotion that connect you with people you’d never meet any other way. And so I definitely capitalize on that, along the traditional methods like book signings, reviews, etc., and hope that’ll be effective in getting the word out. It also doesn’t hurt either that NavPress has a killer creative team. They were very intentional about making my cover really stand out from the rest of chick-lit, and I feel that will also help the book’s chances of being noticed in the local bookstores.

8) And you’re already fast at work on a sequel. Did you have that planned from the get go? Or is that all a part of the industry’s plot to sell more, well, plots?

I didn’t have a sequel planned out initially, but after NavPress suggested that it may be something cool to do, I was definitely on board. And the ideas flowed so naturally once I really got down to exploring what a sequel would look like. I don’t feel like my second book was just a cheap way to sell more plots. In fact, it’s something that Nav wanted to do before they even had a chance to see how the first one would sell, which I thought was very exciting.

9) Who are some of your favorite novelists to read?

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever been given is to read everything you can in your genre. So these days, I’ve been reading chick-lit like it’s going out of style, and Sophie Kinsella (especially the “Shopoholic” series), Meg Cabot and Nicholas Sparks (even though he’d probably hate to be called chick-lit) are some of my favorites.

In the non chick-lit vein, I’m a huge fan of anything that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nick Hornby or C.S. Lewis has done (how’s that for variety?), and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is definitely one of my all-time favorites reads. And like most women, I adore Jane Austen’s work, especially Emma and Mansfield Park.

10) Tell us 100 words or less why we should run out and buy Around the World in 80 Dates (and read it)?

Before I launch into my winning pitch, let me just say that while I’m not a believer in karma, the principle behind it is coming back to haunt me right now. I always ask musicians this question in interviews, much to their chagrin. They hate, hate, hate answering this question, but I always made them anyway. And now I’m forced to answer it and am drawing a serious blank, so how about this?

For anyone (yes, guys, too!) who has been on a bad date or is dating someone who is, well, a little less than desirable, Around the World in 80 Dates will give you a good laugh–and then some as you join Sydney Alexander on her global adventures.

Big thanks to Christa for putting up with my questions and sharing a bit of the behind-the-scenes of a published author. You can buy Around the World in 80 Dates wherever books are sold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *