Beth Webb Hart, a South Carolina native, holds a B.A. in English Literature from Hollins College and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She lectures on a variety of topics and has taught creative writing on the college and high school level where she received two national awards from Scholastic, Inc. Beth Webb lives with her husband and children in Charleston, South Carolina where she is an active participant in a prayer and women’s ministry.
Favorite Verse: Romans 5: 6-7 which says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” I try not to forget, though I certainly fail, what that sixteenth century English martyr, John Bradford, said as we watched criminals being led to their execution: “There, but for the Grace of God go I.”
Visit Beth Webb Hart in the Writers Corner
Our Interview with Beth Webb Hart
Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a wife, mother, daydreamer, student, teacher, city-dweller (downtown Charleston, SC), and most importantly, someone who loves and attempts (though flounders and falls more often than not) to follow Christ.
How did you get started as a writer?
As a little girl growing up in a little beach house on the SC coast, I used to fill many a day day-dreaming. I’d sit on my screened-porch, making up characters in my head and I’d put an obstacle in their way and watch them come alive in my imagination and attempt to overcome the obstacle. I never knew exactly how things would turn out and this was a thrill. I became aware at age seven or eight that once a character is up and walking in your mind, they really have a life of their own. And as Faulkner once said, “All I have to do is catch up with them and write down what they say and do.” It all grew out of a way to occupy my time. My sisters and I were not very scheduled the way kids are today. There was a lot of quiet and even some boredom, but that provided an opportunity for my imagination to get to work.
I attended a fine arts high school where I studied the craft of writing and learned to appreciate masterful writers such as Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Lee Smith and Annie Dillard. I thought, wouldn’t this be the most challenging, most amazing way to make a living? I set my heart on becoming a writer, and I went on to study creative writing in college and graduate school where I wrote my first novel, Grace at Low Tide.
What is your favorite bible verse?
That is a tough one. There are many. God’s initiating love, the doctrine of Grace, is something I’m constantly trying to wrap my head around and fully embrace in my daily life and in my writing. For this reason, I would have to pick Romans 5: 6-7 which says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” I try not to forget, though I certainly fail, what that sixteenth century English martyr, John Bradford, said as we watched criminals being led to their execution: “There, but for the Grace of God go I.”
What inspired the concept for writing Love, Charleston?
I tend to write about whatever season of life I’m in. Right now I’m busy juggling little children and a career as are many of my friends. What suffers often in the craziness of life are marriages. I have a loving husband who shows me grace more often than not, but after twelve years of marriage, we have make a conscious effort to take the time to be together and build one another book. I wanted to write a book about joys and trials of love and marriage set in the hometown I’ve come to love. Of the three interwoven narratives, each relationship has its own sort of struggle. I wanted to know why a marriage that seems to have it all often fails while a marriage that has very little going for it on paper, seem to succeed. This book explores that.
How familiar are you with St. Michaels Church; Charleston?
St. Michael’s is my home church! I’ve had the joy of worshipping there and being a member of its congregation for the last twelve years. My rector and dear friend, The Rev. Al Zadig, Jr., gave me his blessing to set the book at the church. It couldn’t be a more beautiful setting, and the history of the 250 year old church is utterly fascinating. A few interesting facts: Its 186 foot tall steeple was painted black in an effort to camoflauge it during the Revolutionary War. This backfired, and it was ransacked anyway. A good portion of the sanctuary’s roof was melted down to make bullets for the American troops. George Washington once worshipped at St. Michael’s and so did Robert E. Lee. The clock tower is the oldest working church tower in our country. The stained glass image of Michael above the altar is a Tiffany original. I could go on and on…
Is any part of Love, Charleston factual?
The setting is factual and so is the history and present-day description of St. Michael’s and the rectory. Bits and pieces of the characters are loosely inspired by some real-life folks, but they always take on a life of their own. I love to feel the character come to life and take over the reigns of the story. This is a great thrill!
How closely is Love, Charleston based on real life experiences?
It is loosely based on the following real life experiences of either myself or other people in my life whom I love: losing a spouse to cancer at a young age, struggling to live on an artist’s income in a very affluent society, post-partum depression, infidelity and on a much happier note, the joy of falling in love in the city of Charleston.
How did you choose the location for the setting?
Charleston has been my home for twelve years. I had been intimidated to write a novel set here because, after-all, I’m a “come-ya”, not a “been-ya.” (I think your ancestors have to have landed here in the 1700’s to obtain full “been-ya” status. (My husband’s ancestors did just that so I get to ride on his coat- tails.) Anyway, it’s just the most evocative, aesthetically pleasing city in the country, in my humble opinion. I decided it was high time to get over my fear and intimidation and set a story here.
How long did Love, Charleston take you to complete?
I was teaching full-time so I really had to write in the cracks. I would say, it marinated in my mind for six months, and I wrote it in nine months. (Total 15 months).
What is the symbolism for the title Love, Charleston?
My favorite character in the book, The Rev. Roy Summerall, is terrified of Charleston. He grew up spending his summers in the city with his awful Aunt Elfrieda. He is a country boy who was teased by the city boys, and the last thing he wants to do is accept the call to serve as the Rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. By the end of the story, he realizes that he loves Charleston and Charleston has loved him back and given him one of the greatest gifts he’s ever received, a newly revived heart.
What inspired you to write about post partum depression through Lish, one of your characters?
I suffered a much less severe bout of post-partum depression, and someone very close to me suffered a severe bout. We both made it through, thanks be to God! Sadly, there is a great deal of misunderstanding, fear and prejudice (especially among Christians) about mental illness, and I wanted to take a turn dispelling the myths and giving an accurate portrait of the experience. Healing is a beautiful, mysterious experience, and I was glad that my character was on her way to being fully restored by the end of the story.
Do you have a favorite character in Love, Charleston? Anne, Lish, Della, Peter, Mrs. B. Roy Why?
Roy is my favorite character. He’s utterly charming and full of hope. He allows himself to be pliable and God uses him in a significant way.
I also love Della, the writer. Honestly, she is the one I relate to the most. Life has been hard for her, but she’s not so far gone that God can’t work a miracle in her mind and heart.
How much research did Love, Charleston take?
I had to research the particulars of the history of St. Michael’s Church, and I attended a bell-ringing practice to get that part of the story right. Also, in terms of Lish’s story line, I relied heavily on the advice of my brother-in-law, Dr. James McKinney, who happens to be a psychiatrist. He enjoyed helping me and often said, “I can help you make this shocking, painful and dramatic while knowing that a real person is not actually suffering!” I had no idea how to do the emergency room and psych ward scenes. He helped me with all of that.
What was the most interesting fact that you learned while writing Love, Charleston?
Well, I learned that my own church has a rich history that I didn’t fully appreciate. Also, I learned that bell ringing is a fascinating art form and ministry. I even got to ring on of the gigantic bells in the St. Michael’s bell tower. That was quite a thrill!
What are some of the challenges you face as an author?
Finding a regular time to write. I’m a wife, mother and teacher and it’s very hard to tune out the needs of those around me for a few hours on a regular basis and focus on the story. I do much better if I can get out of the house. I’m often tucked away in the cubicle of the public library when the kids are at school. If I’m writing at home and the phone rings or the dryer buzzes, I’m done for.
What aspects of being a writer do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the surprises. Often I think I know where the story is going, then a new character will show up or a new conflict will arise and suddenly we’re off the beaten path, and I’m hollering with my head out of the car window, relishing the breeze and the change of scenery.
What writing clubs or organizations do you belong to?
No official one. Kind of pitiful, I know. However, in this season of my life, I’m lucky if I can just keep the house together, feed and clean the kids and meet the next deadline. In another stage of life, I hope to be more involved with clubs and organizations. (I do have some writer friends I get together with in an unofficial way. That is always a pleasure as it is quite a solitary pursuit.)
What were your favorite books as a child?
I always loved Bible stories. No one could spin a yarn quite like Jesus. I remember reading the parable of “the unmerciful servant” over and over again, reliving each time the shock and awe at how the protagonist refused to show mercy to his debtor just after his own debt had been forgiven.
Other titles that stick out in my mind are The Chronicles of Narnia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and as a little child, Paddington the Bear.
What is your writing style? (Do you outline? Write “by-the-seat-of-your-pants? Or somewhere in-between?)
I start with a character and an initial conflict. That is to say, someone compelling yet flawed wants something, and when the novel opens, that something is far from their reach. I have a vague sense of the climax and resolution, kind of like a fuzzy photograph image, but I have no idea what the points along the trajectory will be before that image comes into focus. I feel my way in a dimly lit room with bad eyesight. (I’ve tried outlining, but the story tends to have a mind of its own all too often.)
Do your characters begin to take on a life of their own as you write?
Absolutely. I mentioned that above. That is the magical part for me. That is the surprise. Once a character comes to life on the page and takes the reigns of the story, I know it is going well. I sort of wave from the side and shout, “keep running!”
What other new projects do you have on the horizon?
I’m working on my fifth novel. It is about a well-to-do Charleston family who decide, after coming to know God, to buck the social norms and start living in a radical way. In the recent best-selling novel, The Help, an aspiring author gets some great advice from a potential NY editor. The editor says, “Write about the thing that bothers you, but doesn’t seem to bother anyone else.” That is what I’m hoping to do with this next novel.
Who was the person who influenced you the most with your writing?
My creative writing teacher in high school, poet Jan Bailey, and my favorite college professor, R.H.W. Dillard. They both encouraged me by making me consider that I – a 1980’s cheerleader with big hair and hot pink lipstick – might actually have something to say.
What message would you like your readers to take from Love, Charleston?
That no matter what your circumstances, God longs to restore your soul.
What is your greatest achievement?
Having a family. I didn’t really achieve it. It was more like I received it. I am very grateful for my precious husband and our two children. I feel so grown up, and I actually like that feeling!
What is your goal or mission as a writer?
My goal is to show grace, God’s unmerited favor and love, through the lives of characters who seem real. The themes that surface in my writing are those I continue to work through in my everyday life. They are as follows: receiving and giving grace, loving the unlovable person, and finding hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.
What do you do to get away from it all?
If I have an hour, I take a walk along the High Battery and look out over the Charleston Harbor. If I have a day or two, I drive South on Highway 17, hang just after Ravenel and go right to the dirt roads or the beach on Edisto Island.