At the Same we love connecting readers with authors, and, today, we interviewed author, Stephanie McElligott. We’re excited to introduce her beautiful book, The Gifts of Man, with readers around the world!
the Same: Tell us about yourself!
Stephanie McElligott: I grew up on Long Island (NY) the eldest of four children in a family that moved a lot. By the time I graduated from college, I had lived in no less than eleven different towns before marrying an Irishman from Brooklyn and moving yet again to the Midwest. In the midst of it all, while my husband traveled for business, I helped raise four children, served on a school board, pursued various graduate studies and held a variety of interesting jobs. Always an avid reader, I decided to pursue a lifelong goal to write when my youngest son graduated from college. Because biblical and archaeological studies have always held a special fascination, I gravitated to writing biblical fiction. Now retired and a grandmother of five, I love my adopted state of Tennessee where I write, golf, kayak, play bridge and stay active in my local parish. I hold a B.A. in History from St. Bonaventure University and am a member of the Catholic Writer’s Guild and the Author’s Guild of TN.
tS: Tell us about your journey to becoming an author. How did you come to be a writer? Have you always wanted to write?
SM: Yes, I had often thought about writing a book because in my school essays, and in the letters and cards I sent over the years, teachers and others often told me I was an expressive writer. But I realized as I grew older that lots of people talk about wanting to write a book. It’s one thing to talk and another thing to do. I wondered if I could really do it. In the end it was the topic of the three wise men that moved me to action after I retired. Every year I would go to church on the feast of the Epiphany and think the gospel relating the Visit of the Magi to be a mysterious one. Three men travel from afar in search of a Judean baby boy – the new King of the Jews – they find him, present their gifts and go home by a different route. The part of Matthew’s gospel that talks about the Magi is what I would call a bare bones story, there was never enough detail to satisfy me. I always felt there had to be more to it, and like Paul Harvey I wanted to know the “rest of the story.” After I retired and had the time needed to devote to such a project, and with the encouragement of my husband, I started writing to answer the questions about the wise men that had always nagged me.
So it was a challenge to myself to see if I had the persistence to complete a novel, and also a statement to my grandchildren that it’s never too late to learn and try new things. I think it’s very important that for women of my age (or any age really) that you never think it’s too late to try something new. I believe with all my heart that being open to learning new things keeps us open to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives – and has the added benefit of keeping us “young” and engaged with others.
tS: Have you ever had to struggle for your voice to be heard? Tell us about that.
SM: Only a little struggle. Honestly, I figured that if the writing was good enough and the story was intriguing people would eventually find their way to it through word of mouth. And thankfully that has happened. The marketing and promoting of the book is the hardest part I suppose, and the Authors Guild of TN has helped with that in a big way. And of course it helped that I didn’t approach my writing as some younger writers may who are putting all their efforts into writing as a career. It wasn’t like that for me. Starting out as I did in retirement, I didn’t intend for writing to be a new career. I just wanted to have fun with it. To challenge myself as I said, and so I guess I was writing for myself as much as I was for others. I wasn’t out to impress anyone or to get famous. I just wanted to write a decent book that others might find interesting, and that would do justice to Jesus and the Nativity Story that inspired me.
tS: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
SM: Language with Power. Wow! I guess that would have to be when I listened to President Kennedy’s debates with Richard Nixon and then Kennedy’s inaugural address. I was only ten years old then and our family listened to those events on TV together. My father would remark on one point or another as we watched, but I was old enough to realize that the words being used and the concepts being discussed could influence people, inspire people in a big way to do good. Of course it was many more years, when as a History Major in college, I studied the propaganda machine of Hitler in the pre-war years in Germany, and realized that words also had the power to inspire hatred and evil. Now in 2017 we continue to see words used for both good and bad effect. I think all writers have a responsibility to write with an understanding of the potential our words have to reach others, and to do it in a way that inspires for good and not for ill.
tS: What was your favorite book as a young girl?
SM: Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I just loved the life of the animals, their very individual personalities, the hijinks of Mr. Toad and how as friends they all helped each other. My second favorite was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
tS: Which female authors have most influenced you as a writer?
SM: There are several authors who come to mind for different reasons.
Anita Diamant – The Red Tent. This was the first biblical fiction I ever read and it made me realize how a well done fiction could make a bible story come to life for modern readers. It was what got me thinking I could write in that genre about the wise men.
Alice Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This book, told entirely though letters, gave me insight into the various ways a writer can develop characters and how readers perceive action both by what is said and what is not. As writers we need to appreciate how much readers read “between the lines.” It was a great eye opener into the various techniques available to writers to tell a tale.
Jean Auel – Clan of the Cave Bear. Like Ken Follett (one of my favorite male writers), Jean Auel enriches her novels with so much detail that you can envision yourself sleeping in a cave, walking with wild animals and using a sling to kill what you need to eat. I love that when I read a Jean Auel or a Ken Follett novel I always come away learning something new. I wanted The Gifts of Man to give that to readers to. So I did a lot of research to make sure the sense of time and place was real, and that readers could imagine themselves there.
tS: Tell us about one female author we may not have heard of whom you think we ought to read.
SM: Ann Perry – The William Monk Series, The Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Series. I happen to be a big mystery fan when I’m reading purely for pleasure, and some years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the British author, Ann Perry. I’ve always been a fan of British writers, and Perry is a female writer who stand out. I got hooked on her various mystery series, written during Queen Victoria’s reign, because of the well-developed characters, with several strong women among them. There are various themes running throughout the books, and like Auel and Follett, I found myself telling others for instance, what I had learned about the Florence Nightingale days of nursing, or the anarchists who planted bombs in Victorian England much as terrorists do today. She often relates her mysteries to current events of the day, and as someone who likes historical fiction, her mysteries fit that bill.
tS: Tell us about your book.
SM: It’s titled: The Gifts of Man, and in a nutshell, it tells the back story of the three wise men: Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar. It tells how they meet, their very personal motivations for making their famous journey (beyond their desire to follow the star), and of course what happens to them after Bethlehem. I always wondered if any of them lived long enough to know what happened to that Judean baby boy they traveled so far to see and adore. There is also a strong woman character named Alima, a teenaged shepherd named Asher, and many other minor characters whom some readers are finding almost as interesting as the major ones. Of course, there is rich detail, because I want my readers to finish the book with a new sense of time and place, so the story of the wise men becomes memorable. Woven into the story are themes of faith, love, identity, the treatment of women, slavery, illness, family and courage. The book includes maps, a glossary, and the new edition has a reader’s guide which has been helpful to the book clubs who are reading it. It’s been gratifying to see how well it’s been received, and to read the many five star reviews. It’s wonderful when someone tells me that the story of the Epiphany now holds new meaning for them.
tS: Tell us about the process of writing your book.
SM: The writing process took several years. When I retired (2011), I committed to my challenge and started by buying books on creative writing:
- Plot Vs. Character
- Architecture of the Novel
- Writer’s Portable Mentor
- Writers on Writing
- The Idiots Guide to Writing a Novel (not sure what this says about me, but this one actually helped me a lot!)
I started reading them, and what happened was a study on how to scare yourself in one easy lesson! I felt inertia setting in – as a first time writer I thought I’d never be able to assimilate so much new information nor rise to the lofty level of writing the books proposed to teach. So one cold morning in January I closed them and put them back on the shelf. I breathed deeply, closed my eyes and said a prayer to the Holy Spirit for inspiration. Then I spoke out loud to my guardian angel. (I had heard from my son-in-law, Peter deKeratry, that if you want your guardian angel to take a more active role in your life you have to speak to him/her out loud.) So I asked out loud for his/her guidance in writing something that might be worthy of the nativity story and began to type. (By the way you will see that angels figure in the story and that the Preface is written by an angel).
Surprise of all surprises the IDEAS began to FLOW! I made a conscious decision to allow myself the freedom to follow the story wherever it would lead me. I didn’t want to subscribe to anyone else’s idea of what might be proper for the wise men to do or say. Yes, I considered the culture and mores of the time, but I treated them as real people with real problems and moved on from there.
Of course I did a great deal of research. The early research concerned the wise men themselves (what we do and don’t about them as given by history and tradition). The remaining research that I did came up as the plot developed. Things like:
- Roman, Judean and Parthian politics
- The topography of the countries they journeyed through
- Jewish Funeral practices
- Arabian Marriage practices
- Ancient boat building
- The way ancient people lived: their modes of dress, housing, travel and roads
- Fishing and archery
- And other smaller topics too numerous to mention
I began each day with a prayer but I had no preconceived outline or plot line. I found it to be true what other writers have said, that as you write the characters take control. Each day new ideas would come to me that moved the story forward. Sometimes the research itself would give me an idea.
After writing for about nine months I decided to attend a writer’s boot camp run by my writer cousin, Tom Monteleone, at Towson Univ. near Baltimore. He told me to prepare myself mentally because 25 other people would be critiquing my first chapter and they were likely to be ruthless in doing so. I tried to prepare myself, and he was right that some of what they said was hard to take. But I learned so much about what I was doing wrong technically (in terms of voice and point of view) and how to improve my writing. I knew if I could apply it, the book would be better. Most of all – I got great feedback that my concept was a good one. Almost everyone said they would be interested in the topic.
I went home after the boot camp and spent six months re-writing everything I had previously written – editing it to correct the technical problems that had been identified. I knew I wanted to write from multiple points of view (that means thru the eyes of different characters) so I decided to write chapters that would focus on each of the main characters alone. I figured it would make things less confusing for readers and allow me to show each character’s differences, strengths and weaknesses more easily.
Slowly but surely a plot came together, and the personalities of the characters evolved. After 3 years of writing, when I thought I was done, I sent the manuscript to my cousin Tom for editing. It took him quite a while to get back to me because it was long – then he returned the manuscript with lots of red ink notations and we scheduled a phone call to talk. That phone call, perhaps more than any other thing I did is what I credit for the book turning out well. Tom gave me the following critique:
“So Steph – who’s your protagonist? Who is the book REALLY about? When I read the chapter about Balthazar I feel like the whole book is his story, and when I read Alima’s chapters I feel the whole book should be about her. As the reader I want to root for someone and I’m torn – I don’t know who to root for.”
“Well Tom – I said – I pretty much did that on purpose – I see the three wise men as a team- not any one of them should be more important than another, so I kind of gave them equal billing.”
“Yes,” said Tom –“I understand why you would do that, but readers will still want to know who the main character is. You need to choose if you want the story to have a good arc. Sit down with your characters, examine their problems and come to some conclusions.”
“OK, Tom.” And I hung up.
I looked at the manuscript and did a lot of thinking. I knew it was too long so I decided I would take out most non-essential scenes – ones that did not move the story forward. Then I examined each character as I had written them.
What were Balthazar’s issues and problems? What about Gaspar? And Melchior and Alima? Which were the most difficult problems to resolve and had they been resolved or not? Without giving too much away, I realized that the problems of three characters (I won’t tell you who) had been somewhat superficial and resolved, but there was one character whose problem was more deep seated – it had to do with the recognition of his faith in God and his courage to stand up for it. Because his problem was more intrinsic, it wasn’t so easily resolved and so it made sense that he would be the protagonist and the ending of the book would revolve around him. I went back thru the manuscript and made subtle changes in various chapters to point to this problem and in the end it made the story a stronger more memorable one. When I was done I felt good about my work and hoped others might find it readable and interesting.
tS: Did writing your book change you as a woman? What did you learn?
SM: Yes. I suppose it did. In a very personal way, it made me realize that the world of today is written on the backs of all those strong, courageous people who have gone before us. It also renewed my purpose and showed me more than ever that persistence pays off. Not necessarily in monetary ways, but in more important ways, in ways that touch your mind and soul because your words have touched others. I learned that if you think you have a good idea, you need to act on it. If you hear that quiet voice of the Spirit talking to you in the wee hours of the night, don’t ignore it. God loves you and wants you to have life to the fullest. Those little inklings you think about when all else is silent just might be the ideas you need to pay the most attention to.
You can check out Stephanie’s website here.
If you enjoyed getting to know Stephanie as much as we did, make sure to connect with her on social media!
Don’t forget Stephanie’s book as you are shopping for the holidays. The Gifts of Man makes a great holiday gift. You can find it here!