Author Interview: Christine Sunderland

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Christine Sunderland, author of Angel Mountain

FQ: Thank you for your time today. I want to start out by saying how much I enjoy your book. Your tone and voice resonate throughout Angel Mountain, while I also found this to be an extremely complex read. What was the biggest challenge in writing this book? The Research? Character development? All the above? None of the above? Please elaborate.

SUNDERLAND: Thank you for this opportunity.

This is my seventh novel, so I’ve developed over time methods that help me in the creation of a novel, but with Angel Mountain my greatest challenge was finding the time, given that I had an unprecedented sense of urgency and numerous distractions—including UC Berkeley’s free speech protests near our offices (I serve as Managing Editor for a small Anglican publishing group). There were issues of safety and a very real fear of violence and vandalism.

I write novels of ideas or, if you will, serious themes, and I have been recently concerned about American culture and our loss of freedoms, especially the First Amendment: free speech and freedom of worship. I felt an urgency to craft a story that warned our culture that without learning the history of our freedoms—the Judeo-Christian heritage—we would plunge into anarchy leading to tyranny and martial law, rule of the strong and the silencing of the weak (Stalin, Hitler, Mao). Unfortunately, it appears to be playing out sooner rather than later, in our present times all around us.

So I listened to the still small urgent voice in my head and found the time and finished Angel Mountain last summer. The research had been done—my stories are products of the research, my reading of history and current events, not the other way around. The settings and characters that reflected the themes had been chosen. I needed to put it together to quell the rising chorus of voices (angels?) in my head telling me to hurry.

FQ: There is a vast array of passages to choose from when it comes to citing some beautifully and eloquently stated moments. One that resonated with me early in the read (approx. 11 pages in) was when you were describing Elizabeth’s love for books... ‘that books were living creatures, carrying and housing precious thoughts of authors living and dead, the language and nuance unique to each writer and uniquely felt by each reader as well...’ I found this to be such a moving description and perhaps it’s due to my own love toward writing (and reading). How many passes did you have to make with this scene before you knew you had it exactly how you envisioned the words would play out?

SUNDERLAND: Thank you! This passage was one of the later ones I added for greater depth and texture, and it came easily from my reading about reading, my thinking about thinking, an ongoing topic in my brain. The miracle of language has long fascinated me, so this passage was a joy to write, one that needed little editing. I often know what I want to say, am in awe of something, some glorious truth, beauty, or joy, and I try to find the words to describe it, pull them from my mind, put them in an order that makes sense, that links me with the reader. Just like these words I am writing, and you are reading.

Words, books, libraries are like that. They are homes for our thoughts or characters we imagine and alive in this sense. We take language for granted, and yet it is vital to human flourishing. We reach out to one another using words; we can also hurt one another using words. What are words? Aural and visual symbols for thoughts. So with the gift of speech and writing we are able to connect, to love one another. We are able to envision other worlds, so that your world is shared with mine, mine with yours. We are able to learn from where we have come, where we are now, and with this vision of our true history, we are able to ponder where we are going—past, present, future. Language is a mystery, a true miracle, and considered by science to be unique to human beings.

I also recall growing up in the ‘fifties and the excitement I felt when, as grade school children, my sister and I as grade school children visited the local library on Mondays. We were allowed to choose books each week to take home. We traveled through those pages as though on a journey into another person’s heart, mind, and soul, sometimes to another time, sometimes to another place. Even so it was difficult to choose, given all the titles on all the shelves, and the choosing itself was delicious, like being in a candy store.

FQ: I was quite drawn to each of the characters in this novel; particularly Abram and his extreme commitment to his faith. I cannot help but believe your faith breathed the exceptional aura and life into his character, but how much of your personal faith embellished his character?

SUNDERLAND: Probably all of my faith is reflected in Abram. I was converted to Christianity by a book — Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which provided reasons for belief in Christ and his claims to be the Son of God. I embarked on a path of joy and never looked back. Everything made sense. My life had meaning and purpose. I became an Anglican, since Lewis was an Anglican, and fell in love with the ritual, the smells and bells as they say, and the sacraments, the wonderful music, the Elizabethan language of the Book of Common Prayer. Along the way I discovered icons, more of an Eastern Orthodox tradition, and began collecting them. My walls in my home office are covered with icons (competing with books), just like the wall in Abram’s cave. I also pray the Psalms morning and evening and have grown to love the great traditional hymns we sing in our local parish, so rich with praise, poetry, and theology.

Many others have influenced Abram’s creation as well. Hermits and monastics have a long tradition in Christianity. In the present day, Fr. Seraphim of Nazareth House in Kentucky (who gave me a jacket endorsement) is a longtime friend, along with his wife (Anglicans clergy may marry). They helped me with the character of Abram, making suggestions after reading an early draft. They live a life of prayer, praying unceasingly for the world, and they run a retreat house outside of Louisville. There are many other holy ones I have known—clergy and laity—who are very much like Abram, in terms of allowing the love of God to flow through them and their ability to hear his voice. I have read about many others in history, going back to the Christian desert fathers and the Jewish prophets before them, those who desire their wills to be one with God’s. There is a glory, a beauty, and truth to holiness, and I tried to capture some of that with Abram and his last days on Earth (plot spoiler). I tried to capture the power of love in creation.

FQ: There are controversial moments woven throughout; especially as the story migrates to the ‘seventh day.’ You are quite clear on painting analogies like what we are experiencing in our lives today (and for some time leading up to today). You particularly reference Antifa, but also expand on it with nuances toward controlled reading. I do not want to segue into a political discussion but would be interested in hearing your views on how current affairs are either bringing the world together or tearing it apart and, based on your answer, why you view it as such.

SUNDERLAND: Both. The world is being torn apart and being brought together at the same time as has always been the case from a Christian viewpoint. We are commanded to love one another, for we are equal in the eyes of God our creator and loved by him. This involves all races, classes, creeds, genders, born and unborn, aged and infirm, handicapped. This is fundamental to America’s founding. But the idea of the dignity of every person is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Also the idea of confession and repentance is a Judeo-Christian contribution, self-examination, admission of faults. Virtues and vices. Ten commandments. It’s the admission that mankind is fallen and no-one is perfect. When we lose these foundations supporting human rights, then freedom and democracy crumbles. The study of Western Civilization used to be a part of every student’s curriculum for this reason—not that it was Western or white but because it produced America and the Bill of Rights, human rights. Western Civ began as a course called “War Issues” at Columbia University in 1918, so that Americans would understand the values that they were called to defend in World War I, first among those values being free speech.

FQ: How difficult was it for you to write ‘the end’ to this book (and why)?

SUNDERLAND: Writing about Heaven—researching the theologians on Heaven—was delightful and it was difficult to leave those scenes. Many images came to me to describe the indescribable. I relied most heavily on Francis Hall’s Eschatology. In particular, the idea of “gathering at the river” (an old southern hymn) that runs by the throne of God became central, based on Revelation in Holy Scripture. So I didn’t make anything up that didn’t have a solid theological basis. That we will be reunited with our loved ones one day, by that river, in the midst of the music of all creation, is central to Christian belief. It’s good news, glorious news. Angel Mountain ends on Thanksgiving Day, for such news gives us reason to give thanks. Such news is an antidote to grievance, leading to happiness.

FQ: When you were developing characters, you made Abram and Elizabeth Holocaust survivors who converted to Christianity when they came to America. I was a bit confused as to how this happened. Did you intentionally not go deep into this premise (or would it have put a drag on the flow, and this was a moment to allow your audience to formulate reasons)? Forgive me if you explained it in the story, but I don’t recall any details.

I try to keep the pace of the story moving, those pages turning. Elizabeth didn’t convert, but perhaps I didn’t make that clear. Abram converted to Christianity after a tough time as a homeless man at People’s Park in Berkeley. His Classics Department at the university had been re-designed. A pastor found him sleeping on the porch of the chapel and brought him in, to become caretaker. Abram was introduced to Christ in the chapel by Fr. Brubaker and thus he began his journey of joy.

FQ: In line with my previous question, each character has a distinct life altering moment in their destiny of where they were and where they are headed, i.e., Dr. Gregory Worthington is an esteemed scientist at UC Berkeley; yet when he broadens the horizons of exploration/considerations for his students, he is immediately ‘gifted’ with an open ended sabbatical to ‘complete the book he is writing.’ How close is his character to someone you know in real life (and did he or she recognize this when reading Angel Mountain)?

SUNDERLAND: Gregory Worthington’s conversion to Intelligent Design theory which led to his conversion to Christianity is based on Francis Collins’ memoir, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Dr. Collins is head of the National Institute of Health and led the gene mapping program from 1993-2003. Today oversees the battle against the pandemic. In the process of observing the elegance of the genome he became convinced that there was a Creator, a benevolent Intelligence who designed the world.

Gregory Worthington follows a similar path and shares his discovery in a public lecture on campus that evolutionary science and Christianity are mutually supportive. Gregory's lecture is cancelled after a violent protest led by blackshirts, Antifa. Essentially, open debate, respectful debate is shunned. This was a free speech issue—and free speech continues to be threatened today if such speech is deemed not in agreement with current orthodoxies. For the most part folks are bullied into being politically correct, silenced by the mob.

FQ: In line with my previous question, all your characters are descriptively rich and credible. Are there real-life doppelgängers of them (and if so, how have you worked through this with the real life ‘character’)?

SUNDERLAND: Thank you—that’s a great compliment! I work on it. Character is everything in a novel. I create mini-memoirs for each one (separate from the novel), to help me understand where each is coming from in terms of backstories and for ongoing reference—personal histories that color their present challenges.

No one character is representative of a single person in real life, but they share traits. I mix it up. Parts of Elizabeth came from Yolanda Willis’ A Hidden Child in Greece: Rescue in the Holocaust. I was deeply touched by her experience as a child fleeing Greece with her family, then her forced return to Athens to be hidden by Christian families. Yolanda had a baby brother, just as Elizabeth has Abram. I reference in Elizabeth’s dreams some of Yolanda’s time on Crete. But Yolanda’s experience in America differed from Elizabeth’s. (I haven’t been able to contact Yolanda Willis but do credit her book in my acknowledgements.)

Gregory Worthington, as I mentioned, was inspired by Francis Collins’ memoir. Catherine Nelson, the librarian, reflected many young people who are confused by our times: the sexual revolution leading to the me-too movement, the absentee fathers and the breakdown of the family, the disregard for the sanctity of the unborn, the search for self-knowledge through genetics. I like to have a love story so she and the good doctor embark on promising beginnings of such a story.

FQ: I want to thank you again for such an enlightening and interesting book. I cannot help but think there will be more to come—a continuation if you will. If so, are you able to share some tidbits? If not, are you working on a new project?

SUNDERLAND: I have a rule of thumb not to start anything new until I’ve marketed a new book for a year. (I feel I owe the publisher that.) But we shall see. I clip newspapers and read a good deal, making notes, creating thematic files. Characters and stories fall together naturally. The current pandemic and subsequent protests and riots, still going on as I write, might be a necessary background, for they have had a revolutionary effect on not only our country but the world. We shall see what my gentler years can produce for I am feeling my age. I may need to say a few more prayers before I gather by the river that runs by the throne of God. I may need to listen to my angels.

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