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It’s 1968 and ten-year-old A.J. Degulio is having the best summer vacation of her young life, hanging out with her dog Sailor at the lake, alternately playing and fighting with her four siblings, and driving her mother crazy with her fake Southern accent. And when she meets Danny Morgan—who shares her love of star-gazing and deep thoughts—it seems that she’s met a soul mate. But Danny’s family is falling apart, and the wreckage affects both the Degulios and the Morgans. It takes a tragedy to reveal the high price of betrayal … and the hope that lies in forgiveness.
Renee Riva has been writing humorous stories ever since she won her first writing contest in the second grade. A former greeting-card verse writer and popular speaker, Renee has also published two children’s books, and her articles have appeared in Guideposts and Catholic Family Magazine. She and her husband reside in Washington State with their three daughters, a dog, a cat, and a European black bear albino hamster, often found speeding down hallways in a plastic racecar.
Interview with Renee Riva
How did you start writing? What was your first piece of writing like?
I won a writing contest in second grade with my story The Enchanted Princess. I remember getting to design the bulletin board with my story and characters, but I can’t remember why the princess was enchanted. When I finished college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I remembered I once loved to write so I joined a local writing group. I entered another writing contest and submitted a story about a dog that got hit by a car and was taken to the emergency animal hospital in the middle of the night by a cute young lady. The veterinarian saved the dog’s life and also happened to be incredibly handsome. He and the cute lady fell in love. I titled it Puppy Love. Needless to say, I didn’t win that contest, but I did keep writing!
Why do you write fiction?
I am a born daydreamer and hopeless romantic. I also suffered from insomnia throughout my childhood. It’s the perfect combination for becoming a fiction writer. I had a little soap opera going on in my head every night while waiting to fall asleep. Some nights I could hardly wait to go to bed to see what would happen next. I added to the story each night. Some of them went on for months, even years. By the time I grew up I had volumes of stories to draw from . I enjoy the freedom I find in writing fiction, the ability to go anywhere in the world, be any character, make anything happen, when I’m really just sitting in front of my computer. I’m very thankful for the gift of a good imagination. Nonfiction tends to be very limiting for me, whereas with fiction, the sky is the limit. I also love happy endings, which life can’t always give us but fiction can.
Why do people remember a story more easily than a sermon?
I would say we remember a story better than a sermon because we can relate easier to a story. A sermon often suggests an ideal we should try and live up to. A story is the telling of an event in someone’s life, and I for one love a story. Often times in church I tend to drift in and out during a sermon, but the minute the pastor starts to use a personal story to make an application I instantly tune back in. I still remember a story our pastor told about how he and his wife got in an argument on a trip to Victoria right before the boat left to return to Seattle. One of them got on the boat, one didn’t. I loved knowing that they were as idiotic as the rest of us. I don’t have a clue what the sermon was, but I remember that story!
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope my readers will take many things away. First, I hope they will either remember or be drawn to a slower, simpler way of life. We seem to have lost the era of lazy summer days and replaced it with technology and hectic lifestyles. Drifting with a dog on a sunny afternoon has been replaced by hi-tech toys and hi-speed Internet. People and relationships are replaced with work and busyness. I hope Saving Sailor will help readers to recapture what's important in life. I hope young people will be more cautious and prayerful about whom they entrust their hearts to. I hope they will seek for those people who will be trustworthy and true, and just as important, I hope they will be trustworthy and true themselves. And I hope readers will come to know a big God who loves them, no matter what. Like A.J., if they seek Him, they will find Him.
Which character in the book is most like you?
A.J. reminds me of who I was as a child, curious, seeking, intense, quirky. A.J. has a heart for adventure, romance, and a desire to figure out the mysteries of life. Like A.J., I drove my family crazy with my intensity in trying to figure it all out. I drove my mom crazy by intentionally talking with a lisp and walking pigeon-toed. The neighbor girl did both, and I thought it was cute. When I went to summer camp, like A.J., I laid awake all night waiting for the Hatchet Man or Zodiac Killer to find me, depending on what spooky stories my cabinmates told after lights out. I remember waking up my camp counselors in the middle of the night and saying, "I can’t sleep and feel like I’m losing my mind." Then I got to watch them try not to crack up laughing. And, like A.J., I really did have a huge crush on Little Joe Cartwright.
What actor would you picture playing (your main character) in a movie?
Because I’m more of a reader than a movie-goer, I only know kid actors from the 1960’s—when I was a kid. My favorite picks for playing A.J. would be a toss-up between Jodie Foster when she was ten years old, and Mary Badham who played "Scout" in To Kill a Mockingbird. They both had that zip and drive it would take to play A.J.
Which writers have influenced you most?
I loved Beverly Cleary and E. B. White. They wrote good, funny, wholesome stories with everything that makes a story good. As an adult I am still more drawn to children’s books than adult books . I enjoy Kate DiCamillo for her ability to write stories that appeal to all ages and maintain wholesomeness and integrity . As far as adult novels, I think restrained and subtle affection is so much more romantic than explicit sex, and I appreciate writers who reflect those values in their writing. Some of the writers who have influenced me most as an adult did so because they wrote really well but their stories took a very dark turn halfway through. That’s what spurred me on to write Saving Sailor. I was frustrated that such great stories had to turn so dark, so I decided to write my own story and conclude it the way I wished the other books had ended. I guess you could say I’ve been influenced by both good and bad writers.
Describe your writing process.
My writing process begins with a mix of true life events and "what ifs." I tend to write about topics I feel passionate about and put them into a fictional story. I’ve heard you should "write what you know," so when I set out to write a story I often include as much true life material as necessary to make it credible and believable. Then I make up all of the "what ifs," fun characters, and favorable outcomes. I pretty much know how the story begins and ends, but I’m a firm believer in letting my characters write the story once we get going. That is the miraculous part of writing that I find so enjoyable and amazing; when you feel like you’re just along for the ride, but your characters take on a life of their own. A typical day of writing would begin with scoping out a place to write with my laptop. For instance, my favorite spot right now is sitting on my living room couch in front of my Christmas tree, watching the snow with Andy Williams Christmas music playing. I’m into atmosphere, but once I start writing, I’m gone to wherever my story takes place. I stay in that place until I’m yanked back out, usually by one of my kids yelling, "Mom, dinner’s burning!" Then I remember I’m a mom, not my main character, and I have a family that is probably hungry. If I’m in a crucial spot in the story, I might sneak back later at night when everyone’s in bed.
Can you share a particularly memorable encounter with a reader?
Some of my young readers invite me to teach writing workshops at their schools. When I tell the kids they will each have a story of their own by the end of the class, half of them look at me like I’m crazy. I put a fun visual of a desert island up on a screen in front of the classroom. The kids get to decide why they are there, how they got there, what happens to them during their stay, and how, or if, they ever get rescued. Without fail, the kids all come up with a great story, and most of them can’t wait to read it to the class. One time a teacher came up to me after the workshop was over and said, "I just wanted to tell you that the little boy who just read his story is autistic. He’s usually very withdrawn, and that is the first time he’s ever volunteered to share something in front of the class. I’ve never seen him so excited about anything before." I think everyone has a brilliant imagination somewhere inside of them just waiting to be sparked. I’m so amazed and honored when I see someone excited about writing.
What is one fact about yourself that readers might find most surprising?
I guess it might surprise people to know that I never thought of being a writer when I was growing up. Although I loved to write, I thought authors were a supernatural, predestined people group, like Santa Claus, The Beatles, Dr. Seuss, and The Tooth Fairy. I was planning to be a veterinarian with a farm full of stray animals. I did end up being an author with a farm full of stray animals but no veterinarian degree.