An unassuming woman who works a day job at a Catholic publishing house and is published by a Southern Baptist house is helping to transform Christian fiction. It's a touch surprising that Christians are embracing Vinita Hampton Wright because she is, in a word, edgy. She doesn't serve up the predictable, feel-good Christian story of conversion and happily-ever-after, and her novels disturb as much as comfort.

Her first novel, Grace at Bender Springs, got a mixed review in Christianity Today, but it was praised by other critics and devoured by readers. Her second novel garnered more attention, earning Wright, 43, a two-page spread in Publishers Weekly.

Wright's three novels—the third is in progress—follow three theological themes, though Wright says that is something of an accident.

"I wrote Bender Springs," Wright says ruefully, "as my way of getting out of taking comprehensive exams." Enrolled in a now defunct graduate degree in communications at Wheaton College, Wright had the option of undertaking some giant creative project instead of subjecting herself to comps. The choice was easy: I hate exams! Wright thought. And this will be the excuse for me to write something creative.

But Wheaton students weren't permitted to undertake just any creative project: their novel, or play, or poetry chapbook had to deal with some theological theme. Wright was musing over what slice of theology she might like to explore in fiction when she went to see Miss Firecracker, a movie starring Holly Hunter and Scott Glenn. "It was a movie very much with the quality of a play," Wright says. "It had intense dialogue and intense characters." Many things went wrong for Hunter's rather pathetic character. For his part, "Glenn was attractive in a sort of greasy way, but you didn't expect a lot of wisdom to come out of him." Still, when Glenn and Hunter sat discussing life's disappointments, it was wisdom indeed that Glenn delivered: In life there is always eternal grace.

"It struck me that that insight came from that character," Wright says. "It was an insight, of course, that transcended the story of Miss Firecracker. I wondered, Where did that insight come from? What caused the writer to put those words in that character's mouth?" Wright knew she had her theme. She would explore grace.

Grace at Bender Springs uses the rather heavy-handed metaphor of a drought to depict a community's spiritual dryness: a pastor's wife can't take the pressure of her position; a young widower tries to piece his life together. There is, of course, a revival, and grace haltingly, mysteriously flows through the parched town. The novel began as a collection of short stories, and though it went through many revisions before it was finally published, it still reads in some ways like a collection of short stories. Think of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, only Christian: the chapters add up to a whole, but they are loosely connected, and many could stand alone.

Wright's second novel, which hit the stands in near record time after Grace, is also a set of loosely connected sketches (Wright says she's not especially attached to the episodic structures of her books: "I just don't know how to write any other way"). It also tackles a theological theme, this time forgiveness. There's a lot to be forgiven in Leeway, Kansas, where the narrator, Velma, is a church janitor, all-around wisdom-dispenser, and short-order cook at her own restaurant. There's a neighbor's husband to be forgiven for abandoning her and their daughter, Shelley; there's a suave, privileged teenager to be forgiven for raping Shelley at the end of a date; there's a complicit church and its cowed pastor, a man with an éclair for a spine, to be forgiven for taking the rapist's side; and finally, there's Shelley's eventual husband. He's a dashing pastor-in-the-making and an undeniable catch. We have to forgive him for beating his wife, night after night, and eventually killing her mother.

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Wright's third novel also is under contract with Broadman & Holman. "As far as I can tell," Wright says in her flat Midwestern tone, "this is a book about redemption, but Lord only knows what the theme is going to be when it's finished." She's keeping a closed mouth about the plot of novel number three, revealing only that it depicts, from the perspectives of four narrators, the efforts of a family to ride out an Iowa farm crisis. "This is a family that in many ways has fallen apart. They don't put themselves back together, really, but they do find a way to keep going in spite of things."

That trick—to keep going in spite of things—is a lesson Wright says she learned growing up. "As a child, I came to understand, to put it in evangelical language, that our God is a God who will take whatever's there and make something out of it. In every life, redemption is torn up through our mistakes and rebellion, but a lot of times it's just life. For me, redemption is just that. You take all the pieces and rubble. Sometimes you feel that's all that's left, and yet something new will grow up out of it. Something that is okay will grow up out of a situation that's not okay."

Dealing With the CBA


Reviewers writing for Publishers Weekly and other magazines have cited Wright's novels as a sign that fiction sold in most Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) stores is changing. Christian fiction, once an unliterary mélange of sexless romance novels, conversion stories, and other genre novels, has taken a more literary turn. Quite simply, the fiction is getting better. Characters are more complex, prose is tighter, novels are less plot-driven and, on the whole, more nuanced.

Wright's books are not the only novels that make clear that CBA houses are paying more attention to quality fiction. Sharon Ewell Foster, for example, burst onto the scene with her 2000 novel Passing by Samaria (Multnomah), which chronicles young Southern Alena's 1919 move to Chicago, the "city of broad shoulders." Foster follows up this spring with a novel set in present-day North Carolina; according to prerelease reviews, Ain't No River (Multnomah) is up there with Terri McMillan, if not Toni Morrison. (Foster's success indicates that not only is there interest in quality fiction, but publishers are also increasingly aware of a fiction market they once overlooked almost entirely: African-American evangelical readers.) Jamie Langston Turner, an English professor at Bob Jones University, made a splash with her novel Some Wildflower in My Heart (Bethany House), which, Fried Green Tomatoes-style, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a severe, uncharitable cafeteria manager and an unstoppably cheery, good, selfless church organist. Lisa Samson's March 2001 novel The Church Ladies (Multnomah) gives readers a look at families and friendship in the wake of an extramarital affair and the tragic death of a college freshman.

Still, if Foster, Turner, and others have made noble and much-appreciated contributions to the maturing of Christian fiction, their novels in no way rival the subtlety, depth, and panache of Grace at Bender Springs and Velma Still Cooks in Leeway. Nor is their prose as elegant.

Although Wright may be the industry's fastest rising star, the CBA market has not always been so kind to her. In the early 1990s, revised Wheaton project in hand, Wright signed a contract with Multnomah. A few weeks before Grace at Bender Springs was to go to the printer, Multnomah canceled the contract. "It was maybe a week before Christmas," Wright recalls. "I was never told why they canceled it. It was an executive decision, not an editorial one, but I don't know what the details behind the decision were. The people who made the decision never gave me a clear answer." (Multnomah declined CT's request for comment on Grace at Bender Springs.)

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"The kind of thing they said was that they told the editor from the beginning that the tone needed to be different, though the editor and I thought we had made it acceptable to a CBA market," Wright says. There was, for example, no explicit language and no sex. "All I could figure was characters were just a little too dark. The narrative doesn't go out of its way to explain things theologically to the reader. A lot of times when there are things dark in Christian fiction, the author always puts a character in there to explain explicitly to the reader what's going on." That's a type of hand-holding Wright isn't interested in. An authentic reading experience, she says, involves discovering things as the characters do.

In the end, as the saying goes, Wright laughed all the way to the bank. Shortly after Multnomah decided to pull her book, she signed up to work with Sara Fortenberry, one of the industry's leading Christian agents. Together, they landed a three-book contract with Broadman & Holman. Word on the publishing street is that a New York trade house will snap her up as soon as her contract with Broadman & Holman is up. (Fortenberry no longer represents Wright.)

Calling All Christian Artists


Like rock singers who only listen to classical music, Wright says she doesn't read much CBA fiction because she doesn't have much time to read. After a long day editing other people's manuscripts at Loyola Press, Wright is just as likely to read Premiere magazine as anything. She avoids reading other fiction when she is in the middle of working on a novel, lest some other author's voice or style creep in subconsciously. "When my own writing isn't in a formative stage, I do have a stack of books that I try to work through. I tend to read good literary fiction."

That's part of the advice Wright gives budding writers: "I think it was Annie Dillard who said you should always be reading people who are better than you are, because you become what you read." Wright says that reading "very good word-crafters" is her priority. These days, she is eating up A Hundred White Daffodils, the posthumously published collection of essays by poet Jane Kenyon. She also admits to liking the acclaimed novelist Clyde Edgerton. In their humorous but profound evocations of small-town life, Edgerton's novels bear something of a resemblance to Wright's, although his occasionally stereotypical and condescending portrayal of evangelical Christianity doesn't have much in common with Wright's careful probing of the complexities of faith.

If Wright doesn't read much Christian fiction herself, she still has a few hypotheses on why it's improving so dramatically. Writing good fiction, she suggests, has something to do with literary devices, but it also has to do with how you think about God.

"I think Christians who are writers have been given a freedom in the last few decades to learn more about what it means to be a true artist," she says. Part of creating art means letting go of one's impulse to control everything—every paragraph, every step of the process, the outcome. "When you are a true artist, you aren't so concerned about controlling the material. Today, more and more writers are discovering the freedom to trust the Holy Spirit to speak truth."

Christian publishing, she says, has not historically been geared toward nurturing artists. "We started out publishing collections of sermons, after all." In the absence of community support for art, which evangelicals at mid-century too often fearfully lumped together with what was worldly, evangelical writers have taken awhile to explore their artistic gifts and worry less about the outcome. Evangelicalism "is, with good motivation, a tradition concerned with living inside certain boundaries and following certain commands," Wright says, but "it does short-circuit creativity at some point." More and more Christian writers, she says, are learning that Christians can work with words, craft characters, sketch plots, and shape paragraphs. "We can learn a creative process, and we can trust the gifts God has given us."

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Why Christians at the turn of the 21st century should be poised on a new relationship with art is anybody's guess. "This may just be a natural evolution of the relationship between Christianity and the culture," Wright says.

And why not? Evangelicals have reclaimed the political as a sphere in which we belong; why not reclaim art from the cultured despisers of religion?

"I suspect it also has something to do with ecumenism," Wright says. "We feel freer to learn things from Christians in other traditions, and that can only improve our craft." Wright herself grew up in a low-church evangelical household, but she has been experimenting with more liturgical forms in the last decade. "Liturgical traditions tend to welcome mystery," she says. "The faith tradition I grew up in didn't do much with mystery. My creativity has been helped by breaking out of a tradition where you have to have a Bible verse for every issue and by embracing the mystery of the liturgical side of the Christian tradition."

It is hard to talk to Vinita Hampton Wright and not come away expectant and enthusiastic and encouraged about a new generation of Christian art. Above all, Wright's work calls Christian artists to take risks. "I see creativity as a very spiritual act," she says. "That doesn't mean everything created is wonderful and spiritual and good. But as creators we are imitating God. We have clamped down on that out of fear of breaking rules."

In truth, what appear to be artistic risks are not actually risks at all—they are acts of profound trust in God. Wright dabbled as a songwriter when she was in her teens and 20s. Her songs, she says, were always "very agenda-driven." What has often killed the artistic part of Christian fiction, she says, is a similar agenda. "Whenever a political or religious agenda drives art, the art is going to suffer at some point. You don't have to make a point; the point gets made as you tell a story. When Christians tell the truth about our lives, we tell true stories about redemption and forgiveness. As evangelicals, we grow up thinking that anything we do has to have a purpose. We don't always realize that as long as we are telling the truth about how God works in the world, the agenda will take care of itself."

Lauren Winner is a contributing editor for Christianity Today and books producer at Beliefnet.com.





Related Elsewhere


In last year's Christianity Today books issue, Susan Wise Bauer noted Wright's novels as leading the movement in Christian literary fiction.

Lauren F. Winner reviewed Velma Still Cooks in Leeway for Beliefnet, which also offers a mini-review, an excerpt and discussion list.

Publishers Weekly also profiled Wright.

Velma Still Cooks in Leeway can be ordered at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.

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