Feeling for BonesFeeling for Bones
Bethany Pierce
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At sixteen, Olivia Monahan is uprooted from her home when a scandal in the local church costs her father his ministry. The family retreats to the seclusion of a small Pennsylvanian town, where a host of rich characters all play part in Olivia's struggle to understand her disillusionment with Christianity and gather courage to fight the eating disorder threatening her health. As a young painter learning to re-interpret the visual world, she begins to examine God and her own body with lively imagination and newly trained eyes, taking readers on a journey into a world which cannot be seen.
     

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 Our Interview with Bethany Pierce:

What led you to become a CBA author?

I never intended to be a Christian book author; in fact, I resist the label. I only ever wanted to write. As a believer, of course, I have a proclivity for themes of love, grace, and guilt. I often find my characters grappling with their understanding of Christ, their secret shames, or their persistent weaknesses because those are the things that I’ve dealt with in my own life.  

How did you come up with the concept for Feeling for Bones?

Sitting in a lawn chair during an annual family camping trip, I finished a particularly impressive book and decided to write one myself. This was actually the second time I’d been struck by the inspiration. I began my first novel, Lost in Space, in the sixth grade (and was devastated the day I opened TV Guide to discover that someone had stolen my title). I always liked the idea of filling up a blank notebook, of having a difficult task of imagination tackle each day.  When I began Feeling for Bones, I knew I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write said book about.   In obedience to the adage “write what you know,” I spent a month transcribing high school melodramas and dinnertime family conversations—all of which proved rather dry material for literary fiction.  Then one evening I finally sat down and wrote about a recent trip I’d taken to the doctor’s office.  I’d only recently found out that I had an eating disorder.  Writing about for just those fifteen minutes left me flushed, ashamed, and invigorated.  I knew I’d found the one story worth telling.

Is any part of Feeling for Bones factual?

Factual, yes, in the sense that I would profess there is a God willing and ready to comfort those who are suffering in the way fictional Olivia is suffering.   

How closely is this Feeling for Bones based on your life?

Olivia is very much a compilation of my own thoughts and struggles. And several of the characters are approximate reflections (or distortions, I suppose) of people I have known. But it’s difficult for me to draw clean lines between what is “real” and what is “fiction.”  In all my writing, each character is the product of a small insecurity, habit, or character trait I posses, blown into a full blown person, inspired with a bit of reality, and padded with a generous heaping of imagination. 

 

How long did Feeling for Bones take you to complete?

I was sixteen when I started and twenty-three when I signed the book contract, so technically speaking the novel took seven years total to complete.   I didn’t work on it consistently, though.   During those seven years I finished high school, completed a B.F.A. and M.A;  my life was school during the fall and spring, writing in the summer.  In between times, I kept the various versions of the manuscripts in desk drawers, under my bed, in my closet.  Paper everywhere.

What is the symbolism for the title Feeling for Bones?

Bones are the architectural, weight-bearing structures that shape our bodies. We all have physical bodies, to our delight or grief, and certainly for Olivia her body constitutes the latter. I n the novel, however, the physical body of a young girl is not the only body in question.  Those who believe in Christ also belong to a “body” of believers, the Church.   As a skeleton is to a physical body, Christ is to the Church:  He is the strength upon which the body depends, He defines its shape.

Visiting relatives for Christmas is like going to an annual physical if you are suffering anorexia: people hug to see if they can feel ribs.  While Mollie and Claire may press their hands gently against Olivia’s skin, “feeling for bones,” Olivia is also prodding gently, feeling for something spiritually solid beneath the surface of the everyday.  Throughout the novel she’s trying to decide if the things Scripture teaches about the Church are more than just figurative language and pretty ideas.

Do you have a favorite character? Why?

Callapher is my favorite character. Callapher is always seen playing dress up or carrying around a Barbie.  In this way, she’s a replica of a younger Olivia and the innocent version of myself: the little girl who plays with dolls and plays at being the beautiful princess, but without the disillusionment or dysmorphia that taint memories of the same fantasies for girls suffering anorexia. 

 

How much research did Feeling for Bones take?

I want to say very little.  I read a few books on anorexia once to get my facts right.  I looked up Scripture a lot.  When I’m writing most the “research” I do is pictorial.  When I’m working on a typed version of a manuscript, I keep it in a binder covered with photographs that remind me of the things I’ve imagined:  in this case, Googled pictures of Pennsylvanian towns, white churches with pointed steeples, and rolling landscapes.  I also clip photographs I come across of people who look similar to the characters I’ve imagined.  

What is your Favorite verse from the Bible?

My favorite verse changes as my circumstances change.  Right now I frequently recite Ecclesiastes 11:6: “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” 

I usually have about five different projects going on in my head, which is fabulous, but sometimes overwhelming.  Ecclesiastes 11:6 reminds me that I’m responsible for throwing my absolute best forward every morning and every evening, but it’s not for me to worry whether this or that project succeeds or fails.  My part is to do what God has given me to do.  

Do you prefer to write contemporary fiction?

 I prefer to write character driven fiction. That is to say, I like to explore what motivates people to do certain things.  I’m fascinated by how messy we all are, by how much we all need grace.  Right now I tend to write contemporary fiction because the problems that fascinate me are inspired by everyday life.  

What are some of the challenges you face as an author?

Balance.  While writing is my first love, I’ve had a thing for painting since my sophomore year of college.  I believe finding the time to work is more a matter of discipline than circumstance, but I’ve found that when writing goes well painting suffers and vice versa.  Making art is not a nine to five job no matter how much I try to fit it into that semblance of normality.  I might spend eight solid hours in my studio and be completely unproductive.  Then I might sit up in bed with a notebook for fifteen minutes and be brilliant. I t’s so random.   As a structured perfectionist, I find it hard to “go with the flow.”  And deadlines make things tricky. Right now I’m always in studio because I have a painting deadline, but more than anything I want to write.

 

Are there any other new projects on the horizon?

Yes. Last summer I finished a second novel for my M.A. creative writing thesis.   It’s the story of Marianne Price, a child mystic brought up in a charismatic sect of Christian camp revivalism.  The story is quite different tonally than this first book.  It’s rife with visions and miracles; it’s about adolescent infatuations, secret sins, and the ramifications of both.  Very different subject matter.  I’m in love with it.

Who was the person who influenced you the most with your writing?

Other authors have had the greatest influence on my writing.  I have never read work like Annie Dillard’s.  Her language is decadent and her subject matter difficult.  I always put her books down feeling flushed and exhilarated like I’ve been flying or running.   I’m also grateful to C.S. Lewis for reviving Christian concepts from tired clichés.  His work infuses the most fundamental truths of the faith with such vivid imagination.  When I read his work it’s like seeing the same Christ with a new face.  I find the ideas in his writing very applicable.  He changes the way I think, and consequently changes the way I live.

What advice would you give to a person trying to become a fiction writer?

I would tell aspiring writers three things:

1. Write a lot.  Write pages and pages.

2. Let your writing be messy. The first few years I wrote seriously I considered it a chore. I was compelled to do it, but my perfectionism prevented me from enjoying the process. Once I learned to let my first (and second and third) drafts be messy, I began to actually enjoy playing with words and from then on writing has been a pleasure. That’s the best place to be in. If you love the work itself, you do it even if the world doesn’t notice.  You’re free from the need to succeed materially; you’re free from other people’s praise or censure.

3. When you’re not writing messy, messy stuff, read like crazy. The best way to learn how to write well is to read what’s brilliant.

 

What message would you like your readers to take away from this book?

I want readers to come away with hope that even our worst shames are redeemable.  I want them to come away with the sense that Christ is no more an abstraction than our own spirits.  That He is a person worthy of our love, and a power worthy of serious consideration.    

What is your goal or mission as a writer?

I want to give readers a fresh perspective on themes of the faith and/or to offer them a reprieve (however temporary) from the world.  If I could inspire even one person with a fresh view of Christ or of love or of the complexities of their neighbor, I would consider myself successful.