This month, Moody Publishers has offered to give away three copies of my Christy-award-nominated first novel, My Hands Came Away Red. Below is a little about how I came to write this novel and what I learned during the process. You can find out how to enter to win a copy of the book at the end of the post.
Cori signs up to take a mission trip to Indonesia during the summer after her senior year of high school. Inspired by happy visions of building churches and seeing beautiful beaches, she gladly escapes her complicated love life back home.
Five weeks after their arrival, a sectarian and religious conflict that has been simmering for years flames to life with deadly results on the nearby island of Ambon. Within days, the church building the team had constructed is in ashes, its pastor and fifty villagers are dead, and the six terrified teenagers are stranded in the mountainous jungle with only the pastor’s teenage son to guide them to safety. Ultimately, Cori’s emotional quest to rediscover hope proves as arduous as the physical journey home.
The Story Behind My Hands Came Away Red
When I was eighteen years old, I went on a ten-week short-term mission trip to the remote island of Camotes in the Philippines.
My motivations for signing up were complicated. I was looking to “do some good”, sure. But I was also looking for a grand adventure. And I chose the backpack team mostly because I figured it would be less work than a construction team.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
I’d envisioned acting out gospel stories for eager kids, hiking along gorgeous beaches, and bonding with new friends around a campfire. To be fair, there was some of that. But right along with it came no shower, and no toilet. We washed clothes in buckets and slept in tents. We pumped our drinking water through hand-held filters. We hiked up to 15 miles a day. There was an absolute epidemic of blisters. And there was heatstroke.
I didn’t have the gracious fortitude to be thankful for it at the time, but all of this roughing it did come in handy later when I buckled down to a task I’d set myself before I even left on the trip…
Someone should really write an honest story about a mission team that collides with some of the worst this world offers, I’d thought after reading an article about piracy in south east Asia one morning, months before leaving on the trip.
Somehow, during the following weeks that thought slowly became a conviction.
I should do that.
Then it morphed into a promise.
I will do that. After all, how hard could it be?
I never dreamed at eighteen that it would take me eleven years to fulfill this promise, or that the story would be so profoundly influenced by my own life in the decade following my mission trip. I never dreamed that I would learn so much about writing and life along the way.
When I started writing the book I knew some of what would happen to my characters. What I didn’t really know was how they would react and cope when the world they thought they understood was rocked so violently. How they would begin to find hope again. How hope would have changed.
During the years it took me to write the book, the story wasn’t the only place I encountered these issues. In various jobs as a young psychologist I counseled murderers, debriefed police officers after traumatic incidents, reviewed hundreds of case files on children’s deaths, conducted risk assessments of child sex offenders, and ran workshops on stress and trauma for humanitarian workers on the front-lines of disaster and conflict all over the world. Among other things, my career has been a whirlwind tour of some of the worst experiences life has to offer.
People often say that you should write what you know, but I felt driven to write this novel more by what I didn’t know than by what I did. Writing my way into this story when I couldn’t see the way out was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, and always difficult. I often wondered whether my personal sanity would have been better served by writing a romance novel instead of a book set in the middle of a civil conflict in Indonesia. But as I labored to write this novel while also working to try to help people profoundly challenged by their own witnessed and experienced traumas, several life lessons were being ingrained.
I learned, for example, that when I hear myself asking the question “how hard can it be?” the answer is almost always “much harder than you think is possible.”
On a more serious note…
I learned some about sitting with tough questions in life, staring them down honestly, and respecting the fact that there are no easy answers that satisfy, and sometimes no answers at all that satisfy completely.
I learned a lot about the temptation to let the magnitude of suffering and evil apparent in this world overwhelm, and ultimately paralyze.
And I learned a little about the responsibility we have to choose hope in the face of all that – even when it doesn’t seem to make any earthly sense.
OK, now that I’ve talked about some of what I learned through writing, I’d love to hear from you about reading.
To enter to win a paper or electronic copy of My Hands Came Away Red answer one or more of these questions by leaving a comment on the facebook page of A Life Overseas or here on the blog:
- What is a book you really loved, one that stuck with you long after you finished it?
- Has a book ever changed your life? How?
- What is one thing you’ve learned from reading?
Thanks for entering! I’ll randomly select the three winners on May the 16th and email you shortly after that.