Today's guest for Saturday Stories is published author G.G. Vandagriff. G.G. is the author of TWELVE books, the latest entitled The Only Way to Paradise.
Following this super fun interview please stay tuned for more on G.G. and my review of The Only Way to Paradise.
Q—Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
My standard line is that I am one of those lucky people who can experience love, hate, misery, euphoria, passion, or elation at will. I can live anywhere at any time in history. Even the future. I am a writer. Since this is a blog for writers, I hope you all appreciate what a gift this is. I discovered it as a youngster in a very dysfunctional home. I literally wrote myself into another existence in a happy family. I discovered the joy of “writing” before I even learned to read. My “writing” was Crayola picture stories in dime store scrapbooks.
I have lived a life with more than my share of drama, which has had its drawbacks, but is wonderful material for character building. Being bi-polar, I have experienced depths and heights that most people never know. This exaggerated type of life is what many people look for in fiction. I took refuge in writing light fiction when my mind sought escape. But as soon as I was healed (miraculously, of course), I began to express all that I had learned deep in my soul. I have written four books that I consider “real” emotionally: Deliverance From Depression: Finding Hope and Healing through the Power of the Atonement (non-fiction); The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War (Whitney Winner for Best Historical Fiction), Pieces of Paris, and now my new book: The Only Way to Paradise.
As far as hard facts go: I was raised in Southern California, did my undergraduate work at Stanford (where my English teacher informed me that I had “considerable talent” but that I would have to give up my religion if I wanted to succeed as a writer), worked in finance for two years in Boston, and then got my Master’s Degree at George Washington University. I got engaged right in the middle of writing my thesis, which was, of course, a giant distraction! David and I have lived in Chicago, Southern California, Southwest Missouri, Oakwood (Dayton), Ohio, and now Provo. We have three children and 2 grandchildren who are the true light of my life. I am restraining myself from including a photo. I have published 11 books with conventional publishers and am now branching out on my own. The Only Way to Paradise is my first self-published book. All my others, except the two most recent ones, are in process of being published under my husband’s and my own imprint.
Q—Please tell us about your book The Only Way to Paradise.
Paradise started out about 3 ½ years ago to be a fun chick lit about some endearingly eccentric women who were in therapy together and decided to dump their therapist and go to Florence to find healing. However, as soon as I got to know my characters, I began a journey of rewrites that led me to a “real” book about agape (Christlike love) and its relationship to healing. The last version was completed only a month ago. It has been the book that just keeps going deeper and deeper.
Q—What inspired you to write The Only Way to Paradise?
I wanted to write about women who had experienced life on one level, but had failed to find out who they really were and what they were really capable of. Group therapy, such as theirs, was not successful in my case. I wanted to write about real (there’s that word again) healing in a way that non-members could relate to. Since all people have the Light of Christ, I knew that the people who were prepared to learn truth would learn an important piece of it from this story.
Q—Tell us about each of the four main female characters in the book.
MacKenzie: A forty-year old woman with two teenagers and a mysteriously missing husband, who left her in the middle of the night six months prior with no explanation. He is a doctor and she has been masquerading for twenty years as a society matron in the upper class suburb of Oakwood, Ohio. In reality, she is an artist without a discovered medium, holds degrees from Stanford and Columbia in Art History, and “way back when” she taught her husband, Kurt, to surf, and he taught her to rock climb. Their marriage has become one of parallel lives. She is in therapy to discover what is wrong with her and why her husband left.
Sara: A thirty year old woman masquerading as an ob-gyn, who has a secret life as an uber-talented violinist whom no one has ever heard play, except her teachers. The daughter of self-sacrificing Vietnamese immigrants who saved all their money so she could be a doctor, she is caught in a profession that makes her constantly anxious that she might lose a mother or a baby. She has become a Xanax addict, and as the book opens, has been thrust into therapy by her peers who have given her “mandated leave.” None of her fellow “crazy ladies” know anything of this, and at first she flatly refuses to join in the trip to Florence.
Roxie: Another thirty-year old woman, a descendant of wealthy Cuban refugees, is even more beautiful than J-Lo. However, she hates her beauty and tries to disguise it by wearing sweats and a baseball cap with her pony tail hanging out the back. She has a Cubana’s passion for life, which she treats as a circus. When she gets to Florence, however, she exhibits bizaare behavior, running away from a professor as handsome as Michelangelo’s David. The other crazy ladies realize that her problems are deeper and more mysterious than their own. Roxie doesn’t even know what they are.
Georgia: A sixty-year-old widow who has led “La Dolce Vita” all over the world as a successful concert violinist, but has lost her career due to early onset arthritis and her beloved husband due to a heart attack just three months prior. Georgia is seeking for a reason to go on living, when she suddenly is inspired to finance a revitalizing trip to Florence for all four of them. She is very wealthy, and this idea is the only thing that has lit even a small spark in her since her husband’s death.
Q—You are able to create such a rich tapestry of characters, each with their own depth, how did you do this? Where did you draw their lives from?
As I said in answer #1, I have a lot of experience with mental illness, abuse, and consequently PTSD.
However, I didn’t want to write about illness, I wanted to write about healing. The problem is, you can’t heal someone who isn’t ill. The writing, in previous incarnations of the book, shied away from delving as deeply as it needed to in order to make the healing as dramatic and real (again) as I wanted it to be. I sought paid advice from a NYT best-selling author of women’s fiction. She guessed what my problem was. There was a part of me in each of these women, but I was understandably reluctant to peel back the layers.
She taught me a wonderful technique. I have always been a “discovery” writer, not an outliner. My characters just become. I have so much “fertile soil” of experience, that I never have to look too far for interesting characters, I just dig down inside of me, finding people I have known, and milking my familiarity with quirkiness, tragedy, healing, and at the heart of it all—the Savior. Pam taught me how to harness all of this and really mine the gold that lay beneath my words. The process was this: I bought large index cards in four colors-one for each character. With these cards, I took one character at a time and created her “arc.” This consisted of beginning with her first scene, and then developing her, scene by scene, each card describing in detail the conflict and drama in it. I was working consciously, but not predictably or facilely toward the person that character would become when her arc was complete. When I had done all four arcs, then the artistry of sorting the cards into chapters, where the arcs were all overlapping, took place. I loved this! Never having had any formal training in plotting or characterization, this filled a big hole in my abilities. I had to go “line upon line, precept upon precept” as deeply as needed to make “truth” happen for each of these ladies, and have that truth overlap and precipitate progress of the plot and finally the resolution.
Q—It is obvious by the intricate and palpable description that you have been to Italy and seen all the amazing towns and sites you show in the book. How did your experiences in Italy define these women and their experiences there?
I know it’s probably a cliché, but it’s true that Italy is a place of miracles, particularly Florence, the seat of the Renaissance. As MacKenzie tries to tell Sara, the energy that propelled the artists and scientists out of the Dark Ages is still there! She insists, and I of course agree, that Florence is a place that makes you believe that “all your dreams can come true.” My royalties made it possible for me to take three trips there during the course of writing this book. The last time I was there almost a month. And I was alone. That’s when the Lord struck me down on the sidewalk, and agape in the form of a handsome young Italian (they’re all handsome!) picked me up carefully, walked me to the famous pastacceria (a combination of a lively cafe and bakery), ordered me a Coke, and sat and chatted with me about the miracle of the Renaissance for forty-five minutes, before surprising me with the gift of four bus tickets! Agape!! It took that experience to teach me why I loved Italy so much—the art is breathtaking, the landscape Celestial, but it is the Florentines with their overflowing love for others that is what makes is truly remarkable and healing. When I learned this, I finally had the reason I was inspired to write this book. Agape opens your heart and prepares you for healing, as you learn a different way of life and step onto “the only way to paradise.”
Q—The Only Way to Paradise is your amazing 12th book! How has your writing evolved along the way? What lessons have you learned or what advice would you like to share with all the writers out there?
Don’t be afraid of “rules.” Don’t compare yourself to others. Take the time and energy necessary to find your own voice. If you want to write anything of significance (and here I must admit that I couldn’t exist without “potato chip books” to soothe my harrowed soul) you need to have something to say, and you need to say it as only you can. How do you find this voice? There is no other way that I know of than to do writing practice. Each day, as soon as possible after arising (this is the time for the most unique thought) take a “trigger” (the first line of a novel, a poem, or even a newspaper story—the Internet has whole sites of writing triggers), set your timer for twenty minutes, and write without stoping. Do not lift your pen from the paper. Do not edit. Write whatever comes into your head.
It is ideal to have a partner to do this with, because you learn so much about your voice when you see how different it is under the same circumstances, with the same trigger, from your partner’s. If you do this, like a musician does scales, pretty soon your writing will pass beneath the superficial into terra incognita—your subconscious. The best writers “tame” their subconscious (88% of their brain) with their conscious voice less and less. I’m not saying that I’m a fan of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Joyce’s Ulysses. My mind doesn’t go in those directions. Another very important thing is to read good writers. There is such a thing as osmosis in this case. Good writers are liberating.
Q—All the ladies in your story learn some hard but extremely valuable life lessons in Italy. If you can, will you share one life lesson you’ve learned that has affected the way you not only see yourself but your talents as a writer?
I’ve learned to be open to my own spirit and what it is telling me about the universe. Why did it take me 3 visits to discover why I loved Italy so much I couldn’t stay away? Because I wasn’t “listening.” There is a voice inside of all of us that knows when something is eternally true and right. If we are living the gospel, attending the temple, being diligent in our prayers and scripture study, that voice is attuned to the infinite. You can become who you were born to become. If you “listen” to that voice its power will become greater and greater until you understand the power of what you are writing. And then . . . you start all over with another book. (This one has been so taxing, my next will be another “potato chip” book!)
Q—Of the four characters who do you see yourself in the most?
It was very surprising to me when I realized that, although there was a great bit of me in each of them, that I was most like Roxie! Since my first trip to Florence, I have become a very flashy dresser, we are both writers, and both terrified of handsome men. (I kept my eyes on David’s tie knot the first time I met him. Our courtship was largely by mail, which allowed me to fall in love with him while not having to look at him.) I am quirky and outrageous, and our traumas are similar, except that I have more of them!
Q—Of the four characters who is least like you?
Probably Georgia. Although I love her dearly as she develops, I possess no musical talent, and could not for long have tolerated the rootless, cosmopolitan, promiscuous life that she led and thinks she still longs for. Georgia thinks through most of the book that a man is the answer to every problem. At the end of the journey she takes, we are much more in accord.
Q—If you had the opportunity to have Georgia’s money and the time to take three friends with you to Italy who would they be and why?
Great question! I think time in Italy is so essential for a woman, that my only problem is narrowing it down to three. Actually, one of the people I would most want to take is a man—my 26 year old son who is very in tune with me emotionally, who is brilliant beyond my ability to comprehend, and whose gretest challenge is the perrenial gifted person’s challenge: “I can do anything passably well. But what am I passionate about? I think Italy and Tuscany for a month would help him put things in perspective. As a matter of fact, perspective was Florence’s gift to the world, and what changed art forever.
The second person I would take would be Sandra. She is a year older than me and still timid about her considerable talent as a water colorist. I would love to take her to San Gimignano to paint the medieval buildings and doorways and archways to her hearts content. She paints “little gems” and I think Tuscany would work its magic on her and give her the sense of well-being and accomplishment she needs to realize her own talent.
The third person I would take would be my BFF, Alana. She is so brilliant, but has had such a hard life, that I don’t understand how she can be as resiliant as she is. She’s also an artist, a photographer, and a writer, but is almost entirely self-taught. Florence would catch my scrappy friend on fire! I want to witness that. I want to see her in the process of having all her dreams come true.
Q—Before reading this book (well, when I was just a few pages into it) I decided I had better go watch “Enchanted April” because your story begins with these ladies watching it. How did this movie inspire / influence your book?
I think it inspired the four women in Italy idea. And it certainly is full of agape. (Which I should have caught on to) However, my choice of Florence made all the difference, and turned it into a completely different book. “Enchanted April” is like an Impressionist painting. I don’t know what my book is like, but it isn’t the least blurred. It tackles much harder questions, and I hope it points people in the right direction. I would love for it to be as inspiring as Enchanted April is!
Q—You’ve got a blog tour going on right now. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
To be honest, it has been a bit of a disappointment. The quality of the blogs lead me to suspect that I am not talking to an audience that would appreciate this book. Three others are traveling with it: Cankered Roots, Arthurian Omen, and The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War. While the last book is an epic, and really has something for everyone and can be read on any of several levels, the first is my first mystery—entertaining and fun, and the second is a psychological suspense. So those three books have been popular. I don’t know how many readers from that segment of the population will appreciate the subtlties of Paradise, but perhaps there is enough romance and atmosphere to please them. I know that romance and atmosphere are key ingredients in the books I like to read! The most disappointing part has been that bloggers have failed to produce. They just don’t post on the days they’re supposed to. Others are very committed and have given me great interview questions, but none as good a yours. I’m afraid that I have completely worn you and everyone else out!
Seriously, G.G., you did not wear me out! This book was a breath of fresh air and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I guess that's as good a lead as any into my review...
Book Review: The Only Way to Paradise
The Only Way to Paradise is a wonderful, character driven story. Set in the heart of Italy, G.G. Vandagriff takes four unique women, each struggling with their own set of demons, and places them in a world where they not only discover what it is eating away at their souls but leads them on the path to true self-discovery.
Each of the characters face difficult choices and the frightening task of learning who they really are, often times this means digging painfully into their past to discover what made them the women they are today and accepting what they need to do to change.
I found myself completely enchanted by this book. I could see bits and pieces of myself in each and every one of G.G.'s four main characters though I must admit to feeling the strongest kinship with MacKenzie. Through MacKenzie's journey of self-discovery I learned a lot about myself and came to understand the importance of letting go and allowing the Lord to mold one's life. One of my favorite quotes from the book has to do with this. It takes place when MacKenzie, freshly arrived in Italy, finds herself staring at Michelangelo's statue of David.
"Be gentle with yourself," David said to her. "You are not meant to know everything. That is what life is for. Learning day by day. I started as a block of marble. The chisel was slow and painstaking, but it ultimately did its work. Let the chisel work in your life. You will find MacKenzie again. And maybe you will find God."
The book is filled with wonderful life lessons like this one that don't make the reader feel as if they're being preached to, rather they are on their own little journey to self-discovery along with these four women.
G.G. has the uncanny ability to make the reader feel like they are in Italy with these women, painting vivid pictures of the cities and villages and creating life-like Italian men and women whose dialogue is so spot-on with the trade-mark Italian charm.
I found myself laughing, smiling, and completely enchanted by this book and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in a story that is more than just an enjoyable read, but a personally enlightening read as well.
If you'd like to learn more about G.G. Vandagriff or her books you can find it here:
Her website here http:ggvandagriff.com (it has bio, books, photos, sample writing, book club questions, contact info.
Her interactive blog is: Embracing Abundance
Her PTSD blog and website are at: PTSD: Secret Storm of the Soul
Her Last Waltz (Whitney Winner) website is http://last-waltz.com. It is filled with pictures, character sketches, history of the period, and a synopsis.
Her Facebook Page is GG Vandagriff-Author.
Her Fan Page is Fans of GG Vandagriff.
Her Amazon Author page is:GG Vandagriff's Amazon Author Page.
If you are interested in purchasing The Only Way to Paradise you can find it
All of the e-books featured in G.G.'s blog tour are specially priced at $3.99 until the tour ends on Nov. 30. Also available for those who purchase the paperback, is a personalized bookplate for anyone who puts their snail mail address on her website (contact).