recently spoke with Robin Jones Gunn, author of the Christy Miller and Sierra Jensen series for teenagers and several Palisades Romance books including Sunsets and Whispers.

How did you get started writing?
I started with articles and children's books when my kids were real little. I had done 14 picture books, probably 16 years ago, so it's been quite a while. All of those picture books are out of print now.

Writing novels for teens, the Christy Miller series, came about as a result of the kids in our youth group. We were actually on a camping trip. There was a very defining moment. I couldn't understand why these girls were in their tents reading instead of out at the beach or in the water. They had books, books, books that they had brought from the library, and that was what they were doing for their on-the-beach vacation staying in their tents reading. So I asked these 13-year-old girls if I could read three of their favorite books. After I read the first one, I was a little concerned. After I read the second one, I was deeply concerned. After the third one, I went and confiscated the rest of the books. And I said, "Do your mothers know this is what you are reading? The information in these books is beyond what you need to know as 13-year-olds." And some of the principles and the information were in direct opposition to what we were teaching them in Sunday school. They were just filling themselves with these stories. They said, "We just like to read. So if you don't want us to read these books, give us something else to read." That was about 14 years ago.

I went to the Bible bookstore the very next day when we got back from the camping trip and I bought everything I could find, which was really limited back then. Within four days, they read everything I had given them and asked for more. That was the extent of what I could find, so they challenged me and said, "Why don't you write a book? You write these children's books. Why don't you write a novel for us?"  I said, "Oh, no, I don't think I could write a whole novel. That would be hard."  And they said, "You could write about us. We could tell you what to write. How hard could that be?" And that is really how I began. Every week for two years, I would bring a chapter with me to Sunday school class. I would read to them what I had worked on during the week and they would demolish it. They would tell me everything that was wrong with the characters, change the names, and they always laughed at what I had dressed the characters in. They really made Summer Promise their book. They rewrote portions of it for me, and very much participated in making it the kind of book that they wanted to read. It was a real group effort. I didn't set out to be a writer, it was just sort of what came, and then after Summer Promise they wanted more stories and I just continued until there were 12 Christy Miller books.

One thing that these girls kept saying was, "We want an Anne of Green Gables who lives in our generation." And that's what really seemed to happen. Christy became the girl that you empathize with and you can relate to, yet she is so average.

Then came the 12 Sierra Jensen books. Are you finished with that series now?
For now I think that Sierra is finished, but she will continue to appear in the Todd and Christy books that I've started. Those are three full-length novels that will be about 300 pages each. It will be Christy and Todd: The College Years. They will pick up sort of where the last Sierra book left off, and go through and see what happens. Everyone wants to know if they get married or not.

Are these going to be more along the lines of the Glenbrooke series, geared more towards older teens and adults?
They might turn out that way, since I haven't finished the first one yet. I don't exactly know what it will look like, but I'm finding as I've begun to write, it really is the same sort of voice that Christy Miller had all along, but she's just older now, more mature. It will be interesting to see what it becomes, because the characters seem so real to me. I feel like I am sort of just watching them unfold as I write the books, rather than having it all figured out ahead of time. I just sort of jump in this imaginary world and see what happens.

You've written for children, teens, and adults. Which audience do you prefer writing for?
I think that I enjoy writing for teens, although I continually feel humbled, I guess is the word. When I get mail from a teenage girl who says, "These books exactly describe everything that I'm feeling," that amazes me because I don't think that I am really that in tune to teenagers. I guess that's because I have my own 13 and 17-year-olds, and they will tell you any day of the week that I don't understand them. So I think what has happened is that these characters, Christy, Sierra, Todd, and the whole gang, have taken on their own life and personality, and when I enter into them, sort of role-playing the drama through their imaginations, it's my imagination imagining what these characters would think and feel. And when that happens, there is something that is organic in that it continues to grow, but it's very established because I've been with these characters for over a decade. When I'm in the real world and someone says that my fiction world touched their life, changed their life, it just astounds me.  I have received many, many letters, dozens, from girls around the world who have given their lives to the Lord after reading these books.

I noticed that characters in your books often overlap. For instance, the main character in Sunsets is one that was first introduced in the Christy Miller series. Do you plan to do it that way or does it just evolve?
It is these imaginary friends. They just don't go away! I would get mail from readers who would say, "I've been really concerned about Alissa. We didn't hear much about her in the end of the Christy Miller series. Did she turn out OK? After Christy led her to the Lord, did she really stay walking with the Lord and keep her relationship with him strong? What ever happened to her?"  And I would start thinking about what did happen to Alissa. How did she turn out? What would she be struggling with as a 25-year-old? When I was writing the Palisades books that I wrote 5 years ago, (those six books have all been pulled out and put into their own series, the Glenbrooke series), the books were all connected and the characters were all interwoven, so it was natural to make them into their own series. So there will be three new books to add to the Glenbrooke series. The first six are all getting new covers, and they will each have a recipe in the back of something that one of the characters fixed in the book.

So with Alissa, I began to wonder about her, and when I wrote Sunsets, it was just taking off in my imagination and figuring out where this character was at 25 years old and what was happening. So it seemed real natural to go revisit her. In Whispers, the main character Terry, was in the fourth Christy Miller book, and Christy actually gave up her spot as a cheerleader so that Terry Moreno could have it. So now here is Terry Moreno as the Spanish teacher at Glenbrooke, and she goes off to Maui to visit her sister for the summer and meets this endearing, clumsy Australian who captures her heart.

I think it is so much fun when you get together with couples and everyone sits around and talks about how they met and how they knew they would get married. Every story is different and fun. I think that is what has happened with the Glenbrooke series. It is sort of checking in with all these different couples at the point in their life when they meet each other, but then because it is all connected through the series, you get to read the one story of where they ended up meeting and coming together, but the series then allows the reader to go back and visit them. "Oh, look, Kyle and Jessica now have three children. Isn't that amazing!"

I love it when the reader knows more than the main character in the book. It is a very fun thing to do. In Waterfalls, when I have Meredith driving through Portland on her way to Glenbrooke and she stops for gas and says, "Where can I get a really good cinnamon roll?" they tell her that there's a bakery down the road. Mama Bear's has great cinnamon rolls. All the readers of the Sierra Jensen books know that that is where Sierra works. So the readers know more than the main character. Meredith doesn't know Sierra, she doesn't know Mama Bear's. So Meredith walks in and gets her cinnamon roll, sits down, and is thinking of her complicated life as a 25-year-old. She is looking at this girl behind the counter with this wild curly blonde hair who can't be more than 17, and Meredith is thinking, "Oh, to have a life as simple and uncomplicated as a teenager like that girl . . ." Where the readers of Sierra know that Sierra is up to her ears in complications. It is very fun. The readers feel like they are there, like they are involved.

I've heard it said that romance novels, even Christian ones, are nothing but fluff, that they have no substance or value. How would you respond to that?
I've heard that from many different arenas. What I've come to understand is that, well, I'll give you one little story that explains it better than what my definition of it could be. I was on a live radio interview. The very first question the announcer asked was, "How can you call yourself a Christian and write romance?" And in that moment the answer came. I had never really thought of how to answer before. I said, "I think it is because when I was in high school, I read a love story that absolutely changed my life. In the first few chapters everything fell apart, three-fourths of the way through he does everything he can to prove his love to her, and she still won't come to him. But then in the last chapter he comes riding in on a white horse, and he takes her away to be with him forever." And this radio announcer said, "How could that change your life? That sounds like a formula romance." And I said, "Really? I was talking about the Bible. White horse and everything. The Bible is the ultimate love story. God is the relentless lover. If we are going to reach this unreached people group of romance readers, how else can we smuggle in the truth unless it is in the story of a romance? And that romance story can then point them to what their soul is really longing for, which is the lover of their soul. That ultimate romance with God." I am very deliberate about that being the focus. In the back of Sunsets you may have noticed that there was that tie-in about the bride of Christ.

I received a letter from a 15-year-old girl who said, "I had to read a book for school. I go to a Christian school, and I chose Sunsets because it was a romance. Now I need to tell you that even though I go to a Christian school and my mother is a Christian and I go to church, I have ever since I was a baby, I was doing the rebellion thing. I was smoking and drinking and going out with friends. Everything I could think of. When I read Sunsets, it struck me that Jesus could do more for me than Satan ever could. As I was reading that book, I just fell apart and gave my life to Christ completely. When I read about Alissa sitting on the beach reading the words to an old hymn: "Be still my soul, for Jesus can repay./ From His own fullness, all you took away". I just began bawling and realized that he wants to forgive me and clothe me in white, like you said in the Dear Reader letter. That He sees me as his bride, once He forgives me. I wanted that forgiveness and that fresh start." Here is this 15-year-old. Could we have given her a book on how not to be a rebellious teenager? I'm sure we have them on the Christian market. Could we have given her a video or tape series about how to make good choices as a teenager? She was at a Christian school, going to church. She also said in her letter, "This book, Sunsets, taught me more in theology and doctrine than I learned in 15 years of going to church." And that's because Alissa didn't have that background. She didn't know the Apostles Creed; she didn't know the old hymns. So when Alissa as a character is discovering this rich heritage that we have in Christianity, this foundation, the doctrine, the reader is discovering it as well.

So that's why I really see there being an opportunity to reach unchurched as well as churched young hearts through books that appear as romance. Here is my favorite quote from C. S. Lewis. In 1939, in a letter to his friend Arthur Greaves, he said, "Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under cover of romance without their knowing it." That was in reference to a review that he had on Out of the Silent Planet because it was romance, science fiction, and not literature. The reviews were not very good, and he was telling Arthur that what he was trying to do was smuggle in theology, so that when they read this little science-fiction novel, they will get doctrine as well. I really took that to heart, especially because the word "romance" popped out at me. The movies that we go to are about romance, the TV shows that we watch, especially young girls. They are developing their life views, what their dreams are, their aspirations. The world is inundating them with what that message is, of what romance should be. Why can't there be a true voice ringing out under cover of romance saying, "Look, this is the foundation. It is in Christ alone. You may not hear that at your Christian school or at your church or from your family, but you pick up this novel, which many will say is just fluff, but surprise!

If you had only one message that you could share with your readers, what would it be?
God is the relentless lover, and he wants us back. We are his first love. He will never stop pursuing us. He created us to be in fellowship with him, and he desires that relationship. He doesn't have to. He could give up on us. He could have long ago. But he continually pursues us and desires that we be in fellowship with him. That is my heart's message. I really believe that when young women get ahold of that truth and understand it, it affects who they seek as a life partner, how they end up making decisions about what to do with their life. Their focus can be on the lover of their soul, rather than on spending a whole lifetime looking for someone who will love them and fulfill them.    

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