As a followup to her 2013 release The Prayer Box, Lisa Wingate returns with The Story Keeper and takes readers on an enchanting journey through the Appalachian Mountains.
Seamlessly melding the past with the present, The Story Keeper introduces Jen Gibbs, a New York editor who left the mountains for the big city. An anonymous manuscript finds it way to her desk, and as soon as Jen begins turning the pages she can’t put it down. She finds herself immersed in the world of Sarra, a mixed-race Melungeon girl trapped by dangerous men in turn-of-the-century Appalachia. Mystery surrounds the manuscript, which takes Jen back to a place she thought she had left behind forever.
“The Story Keeper is an inspirational tale about a complex heroine who has managed to survive by navigating around her scars,” says New York Times bestselling author Julie Cantrell. “Set in the captivating world of rural Appalachia, the mountains play a powerful role in this lyrical tale that transports readers across time through a magical and beautiful journey.”
Lisa Wingate is the author of 20 mainstream fiction novels, and her bestselling books have become a hallmark of inspirational Southern fiction. She lives on a ranch in Texas. The Story Keeper releases September 1 from Tyndale House Publishers and follows The Prayer Box and July’s novella The Tidewater Sisters, written as a bridge between the two books.
The Story Keeper tells such a powerful tale. What would you like readers to learn from this book?
The Story Keeper is in many ways an examination of identity. It’s about the masks we wear, where they come from, and whether we can leave behind the masks and become authentic. So often, in rejecting the roles our childhood experiences may have forced upon us, we only put on other masks. In the story, Jen believes she has left behind the girl who was raised in poverty in Appalachia and forced to comply with the brutal and cultish faith of the tiny Church Of The Brethren Saints. But in reality, even hundreds of miles away in New York city working her dream job as an editor, Jen’s in hiding from her past and all the painful questions of her childhood.
When she discovers the partial manuscript of The Story Keeper on her desk, she comes face-to-face with the tale of a young girl living a similar life over 100 years ago. That discovery breaches the mask. What Jen really finds in that manuscript isn’t the story of a 16-year-old Melungeon [tri-racial group associated with the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia] girl trapped in Appalachia at the turn of the century; it’s her own story. That’s why Jen is compelled to go back to the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of the rest of the story. She’s looking for her own truth, for the self she abandoned due to the wounds of her childhood.
That’s what stories can do for us. They can break us open in ways we could never have imagined. I hope that people take away two things away from The Story Keeper. First, on a basic level, I hope that the historical thread in the novel is a reminder of the value of stories and their truly life-changing potential. Our stories shouldn’t go untold. They shouldn’t be lost.
On a deeper level, I hope Jen’s experience resonates with readers who have in some way surrendered to the wounds of a painful childhood. Life behind the mask amounts to slow suffocation. It’s another form of allowing other people to dictate who you are and what you believe. Letting go is a risk, but on the other side of that process lays light, freedom and the glory hour Jen finally senses in the end of the book. I hope that’s what people take away from The Story Keeper. Our lives have purpose, but to fulfill that purpose we must first claim ourselves.
How did your experience as a published author help you to write a character who works in the publishing industry? That must have been a fun aspect of Jen Gibbs’ story to create.
For me, writing about New York publishing from an insider’s point of view was the most fun part of the novel! Over the years, I’ve written for publishers based in New York and several other cities. Every house is different, but there are certainly commonalities in any kind of publishing. It’s an interesting world — a mix of glamour and achingly hard work, of mundane tasks and the Eureka of discovering occasional gold nuggets.
While I had fun dreaming up the uniquely powerful, yet family-owned publishing company that is Vida House in the novel, I’ll admit, it was also a little intimidating to write about the secret inner workings of editors’ lives, all the while knowing that when I was finished, I’d have to turn the manuscript over to … gulp … an editor!
Fortunately, the manuscript passed the agent-and-editor test. Not only that, but friends in publishing loved the idea of tripping over a mysteriously wonderful submission that’s been languishing on a slush pile for 20 years. A fascinating manuscript written by a mysterious author who lives somewhere in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains is the ultimate literary gold nugget.
The Appalachian setting is a character of its own in the book. Why did you set the book there?
Appalachia is a place where the air fairly whispers with stories. So much of the world has grown too fast paced these days, too busy for sitting and listening, too preoccupied with the future to devote effort to retelling the past. But in Appalachian culture, there’s still a reverence for it. There are still storytellers who can entertain a crowd at a ramshackle café, on a back porch or at the kitchen table over coffee. That tradition of the passing down of stories is part of The Story Keeper.
Appalachia is filled with mist and mystery. It lends mood to a story. The mountains are dotted with isolated communities where people can live differently, undisturbed by outsiders. It’s also the place where mysterious “little races” like the Melungeons lived historically, and in some cases still do. I knew that the historical tale of Sarra would have to do with her Melungeon blood and the myths, legends and prejudices that sort of heritage would bring. Even today, the heritage of “blue-eyed Indians” discovered in the Appalachians by the first English and French explorers remains a mystery. What were the origins of their Caucasian blood? Were they descendants of shipwrecked sailors? Journeying Norsemen or Turks? The progeny of the Lost Colonists who vanished from Roanoke Island without a trace, decades before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock? The mystery fascinated me, and it pulled the story from me, and yes, the place became a character in itself in the book.
Your latest release tells a story within a story. Was this a challenge to write?
It’s always a challenge to balance dual time frames and a story within a story. It falls in the category of double-the-work and double-the-risk, but also double-the-fascination and double-the-reward. There’s twice as much research, but in doubling the research, you also discover twice as many interesting historical facts, unanswered questions and nearly-forgotten bits of history. Those things weave new threads into the story loom. For me, the biggest challenge was balancing the two stories, ensuring that both would be fully satisfying, and that the historical story would serve a purpose in modern-day characters’ lives.
What’s on your nightstand?
Endorsement books, usually. One of the best things about being an author is having the chance to read and discover new books before they travel out into the world. Aside from early read copies, there’s usually some research material on my nightstand for other books I’m planning. Also on the stack is a journal given to me by a reader, where I write down quotes and story ideas I don’t want to forget.
Right now, I’m spending time with several nonfiction books about the Melungeons, the mystery of the Lost Colonists on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and Appalachia during the depression years, as I create the third novel in the Carolina chronicles, which ties together a historical mystery interwoven in The Prayer Box, The Story Keeper and this third book.
How did you write 20 books in 12 years with kids at home?
I’ve always loved to write, but I didn’t get serious about freelance writing and selling until after I’d graduated college, married and started a family. I wrote and sold various smaller projects in between naps, diapers and playgroups. And when the boys were older, during soccer practices, in carpool lines, while helping with homework and in all sorts of other situations.
People often ask me if I need quiet in order to write. With boys in the house, if I’d waited for quiet, the writing would never have happened. I learned to lose myself in a story amid the noise of life and I loved it that way.
I asked myself what makes a story last, what really makes a story worth telling and worth reading? I wanted to write books that meant something, that explore the human soul.
One day, I came across a notebook in which I’d written some of my grandmother’s stories. I’d never known quite what to do with those stories, but I knew they were significant in my life. When I rediscovered the notebook, I had the idea of combining my grandmother’s real stories with a fictional family who is like and unlike my own family. That little germ of an idea became my first women’s fiction novel, Tending Roses.
Now that the boys are grown and the house is quiet, I’m redefining the writing routine again. Just as in books, life is a series of scenes and sequels, beginnings and endings, and new discoveries.
Q&A submitted by JKS Communications, a literary publicity firm.