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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Author Interview ~ Sibella Giorello

Sibella Giorello is a writer based in Issaquah, Washington. A Features reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for ten years, Giorello has won several awards for her writing and has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize.

What sparked the idea for your novel The Stones Cry Out?

Back in 1989, I left Seattle with my dog in a truck and headed for Richmond, Virginia. Fresh out of journalism school, I was offered a three-month internship by the daily newspaper there. I stayed 15 years. The South stole my heart.

Richmond is an unusual place. Genteel, cultured, but there’s also bitter blood on the land. That history seems to produce a sort of luscious human melancholia – an ideal backdrop for a writer.

Daily newspaper writing kept me busy, but I always scribbled fiction in notebooks. One day, I heard that the FBI had a forensic geology department. Now, I’d majored in geology as an undergraduate (Mt. Holyoke College) and I had no idea geology could help solve crimes. I figured most people didn’t know that, either. I wanted to find out more.

Ever the brash journalist, I picked up the phone and called the FBI, introduced myself, passed their background check, and started driving up Interstate 95 to Washington DC. The lab technicians were gracious and answered my crime-and-geology questions (obviously, we could only talk about closed cases) and then one geologist casually mentioned a civil rights demonstration in New York City, where he rapelled a brick building to gather evidence. Light bulbs went off in my head. I could see the clear imprint of a mystery, with Richmond’s haunted, hallowed ground as a backdrop.

What went into researching it?

The research was extensive. I probably made four trips to the lab in DC, then another four to talk with an FBI agent who also was a geologist. I filed several Freedom of Information Acts requesting data from old cases. Then I started bothering the Richmond field office and a Special Agent named Wayne Smith. This guy, I’m certain, was a gift from God. Hired when Hoover was still running the agency, he knew everything about being an agent. And he was a Christian who spoke openly about how his faith guided his work. He even took me to the Bureau’s firing range and proceeded to sink a series of powerful firearms into my sweaty palms. Let me tell you, after Wayne Smith’s tutorial, I could write with authority about FBI agents.

Other people helped too. A young female agent described what it was like being a chick in an old boy’s world. Two cold case detectives in Richmond let me hang out at the cop shop late at night. A state geologist carried soil to my house in a Ziploc baggie and explained why it was special.

If a writer is genuinely curious, and conscientious, people are happy to help with your research. Just don’t waste their time.

Do you think being twice nominated for your non-fiction will bring tougher reviews of your novel?

Hmmm, I hadn’t thought about that. But maybe it should. I mean, if the publisher is mentioning it, I better live up to it.

Does being nominated for a prize like that change your life in any way?

You’re still on the hook for all your bills, your husband still wants his socks washed, and your kids don’t stop wondering what’s for breakfast. So the prizes don’t change your life.

But they do shift some subtle things. We all operate under self-imposed ideas of potential, and getting some positive nods from peers can help you progress as a writer. Whenever I won a writing award, it only made me want to write better, to reach farther, to try something even more daring.

And that might be the only thing those awards are good for – goading us to write better for readers.

Many journalists go on to become novelists. Is a background in journalism an asset/hindrance or both to writing fiction?

That depends on how long you stay in the newsroom. I don’t mean that flippantly. You really have to be careful. The key is to stay long enough to learn how to write under any circumstances – and I mean any -- pounding out a profile in minutes while the reporter next to you sucks his teeth, the phone keeps ringing and your editor ambles up to chat about a completely different story, due tomorrow morning. Daily journalism is writer’s boot camp. And I’m grateful I went through it. I don’t get writer’s block.

At the same time, you have to leave newspapers before all your words start sounding like jackhammers.

How long did it take you to write this novel and how did a contract come about?

The writing didn’t take that long. Less than a year. But if you start counting from the very beginning of this project to this interview right now, it’s almost ten years.

Research began in July of 1997, when I first heard about forensic geology. I was pregnant with my first child and after he was born, I went to part-time at the newspaper, keeping free days open for research. The following year, my dad got very sick with cancer and needed my help. So here was this beautiful baby, my terminally ill father, my part-time job, and my ever-lovin’ hubby….I shelved the project. That was a difficult decision. But it was the right one. I’ve met too many writers who produce wonderful work while their personal lives erupt in disaster.

For almost three years, I didn’t work on the book at all. Except that I prayed about it. And I kept coming across the scripture, “He who waters will himself be watered.” I knew God would be faithful. I nursed my father until the very end, served my family with all my heart, and poured my intellect into journalism duties. One day after all this, an uncle took me to lunch and handed me an envelope. “What’s this?” I asked.

He said, “I can’t take the bumps out of the road, but I can smooth them out a bit.” Inside the envelope was a fat check. It meant I could shelve the journalism for awhile and work on the novel again. Truly, manna from heaven. My novel is dedicated to him.

So I picked up the project again. What was that like? Have you ever tried to row a boat that’s dead in the water? It was like that. But I kept rowing and when I finished, a friend suggested sending the manuscript to her agent. Now, she’s got this hugely successful New York City literary agent who is like the Patton of publishing. Enemies tremble at this woman. My manuscript went to one of her agent’s underlings, who sent me a letter. She was horrified – yes, horrified! – that my protagonist, who is a scientist, didn’t believe in evolution. And she just could not understand why this protagonist had to be a Christian. She actually compared it to being an alcoholic. This went on for several paragraphs. Finally, she said, “We might be interested if you lose the Christian angle.”

I wrote back: “You should get out of Manhattan more often. Thanks for your time.”

But another friend, Lee Knapp, a great writer and a Christian, suggested her agent. I sent Brian Peterson the MS via email. He took it on the spot. Revell was very excited and made a nice offer. They’ve treated me well. So a bumpy start ended with a soft landing.

Do you have self-doubts about your writing?

Yep. And I’m glad for them. If you’ve ever played sports, you know that the worst games are the ones where you walk on the field feeling too confident. A little fear, a little self-doubt can work in your favor. The key is not to let the fear paralyze your work. Give it to God and get working. Of course, this is a delicate balance, a daily exercise in judgment.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

Not until my kids were born. I loved being with them so much. And at that time, some of my more fundamentalist friends started suggesting that a wife and mother shouldn’t pursue something like book writing because it takes time away from her family. Plus, we home school, so I hear this insinuation fairly often – how can your children be learning anything?!

Now, I’ve pondered these points. And I finally realized that none of these accusers, however well-intentioned they might be, are writers. They simply don’t understand. God made me a writer. He wants me to write. And quitting would be like somebody born left-handed who suddenly tries to do everything right-handed because the world says that’s what God wants.

I finally learned to simply listen to God, and let the chaff blow on by.

What mistakes did you make while seeking a publisher or agent?

Well, my reply to that New York agency probably sealed my fate in that realm.

But I don’t see that as a mistake. I’m actually grateful it happened. It showed me that as much as I wanted to get published, I wasn’t going to trade in my principles to get there.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

Write what you want to read. I don’t know where I heard that, but it’s guided all my writing, from journalism to fiction.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

An editor told me to give up writing “fluffy” feature stories and start hammering out hard-nosed investigative pieces. I admired that editor so much I took the advice. But after writing one or two of those investigative stories, my eyes glazed over so badly I nearly went blind.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

It took awhile to get used to the pace of book publishing. Daily journalism is a sprint from sunup to sundown. I really enjoyed that. Book publishing seems to be a series of sporadic sprints that amount to a marathon. You have to stay on your toes, but look long.

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

It goes back to that idea of writing what you want to read. I spent too much time trying to write like other people. I finally decided to write the book I wanted to find at the library or book store.

Was there ever a difficult set back that you went through in your writing career?

A big metropolitan daily flew me out for a series of interviews. I really wanted the job they were offering. But the managing editor and I just didn’t get along. He hated a story I wrote about Richmond high-society. Meanwhile, it was one of my favorites. And I was impertinent enough to defend the story during my interview. Suddenly he stood up, walked to the door, and pointed toward the hallway. I was crushed. But now I’m so grateful I want to send the guy a thank you note. That job would have been purgatory! You know that saying, “Ask God for what you want, but be willing to accept what He gives you – it just might be better than what you planned.” That’s the truth.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

I’m always reading the Bible, that’s a staple. Other than that, I’m a very scattered reader. I’ll read anything. I comb consignment shops for really old books, things from the 1800s with titles like “A Boy Looks at Nature.” At the same time, I can jump into a fit of Elmore Leonard or John D. MacDonald or Stephen King. I’ll read their books the way people gorge on chocolate – reading until I’m sick. And recently I discovered Kate Atkinson. She’s a marvel. That’s the fiction side.

On the non-fiction side, because we home school, there’s always a weird assortment circulating through the house – atlases about spiders, blueprints for medieval castles, scientific descriptions of clouds. Homeschooling helps prime my research pump. In this family, each of us is on the road to find out.

What work have you done that you’re especially proud of and why?

I wrote a story for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that probably means more to me than all my feature stories combined. A family invited me into their lives to witness their father’s fight against cancer. He was in hospice care, with brain cancer. They were devoted Christians, their only request was that my story honestly portray their faith. I stayed with them for months, and it was gut-wrenching, both to witness the struggle and then write about it. But these were amazing people and it was the first time I completely surrendered a story to God – because I knew I couldn’t write that story on my own, I was too broken up about the father’s death.

That story went on to win the Amy Writing Award, a $10,000 prize. But I don’t claim authorship.

Do you have a scripture or quote that has spoken to you lately?

The amazing thing about the Bible is there’s always scripture that speaks to me. That book is truly alive. If I dip into the same passage twelve times, I get twelve different readings, and each exactly what I needed to hear.

Can you give us a look into a typical day for you?

When I’m writing urgently, my day starts at 3 or 4 am. I write for several hours, before anybody can get up and start asking me questions like, “Do you know where I put the (fill in the blank)?” And when my writing is done, I can concentrate on life beyond the book.

After breakfast and chores, we start homeschooling, somewhere around 9 am. We’re usually done by noon. Sometimes I catch a quick nap. But I’m wary of that. The other day a girlfriend called. My sons told her I was napping, and she asked what they were doing. They said: “Oh, we’re just putting handcuffs on the dog.”

In the afternoon, we go for walks or hikes. Then it’s dinner and games, sleep and start all over again.

None of this would be possible if my husband wasn’t a saint.

Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?

I don’t keep a formal goal because it can quench my fire. But my daily capacity runs naturally about 800-1000 words. Probably from newspaper days.

Are you an SOTP (seat of the pants) writer or a plotter?

Both. I like to dream and doodle and plot carefully, pretending to be an engineer, then I fly by the seat of my pants. Kind of like the slow grind of a roller coaster chugging uphill, before zooming down at warp speeds.

What author do you especially admire and why?

C.S. Lewis. That guy amazes me. Very few writers can navigate both the non-fiction and fiction waters so successfully. And he’s cogent about Christianity without losing the elegiac aspects of faith. If I could choose a brain, I’d take his.

What's your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

The 3 am wakeup call isn’t always a delight. But I don’t dwell on the least favorite parts of this gig. If you dwell on that, you’ll never write the book.

My favorite part is dreaming while wide-awake. As I write, another world appears. A wonderful sensation. And a small glimpse into what God must have felt, creating an entire world, then populating it with free will. I figure at any given moment He’s totally delighted, or despairing.

How much publicity or marketing do you do?

I’m learning the ropes. Publicity is a different aspect of writing, certainly. But after toiling in solitude all this time, I’m excited to meet readers. Like most writers, I’m an introverted showoff – shy, yet secretly delighted by the spotlight.

What do you know now, that you didn’t know before you held your first novel in your hands?

That I might be a sociopath.

Seriously, when I held my novel in my hands for the first time, I didn’t feel anything. I always thought I’d pee my pants with joy. But I just looked at the book for flaws, for what I might have done better. Then I went up to the office and started working on the next book.

Parting words?

Everybody who gets published says the same thing: Don’t give up. But they say it because it’s true. Persistence gets you published.


  1. Great interview, Sibella. So many helpful tidbits. We appreciate your taking the time to be with us. Congratulations on the wonderful acclaim you're already receiving on this novel. God bless.

  2. Great interview Gina!

    And Sibella...I love your name by the way, how unique!

    I just got the ARC this week...I'm starting it now! It sounds really good!

  3. It is really good, Bonnie. :) Thanks for sharing Sibella, and for doing the interview, Gina.

    I laughed out loud when I read the sociopath line ...

  4. Look forward to reading your book. Very interesting the way your natural curiousity led you to your book. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I really liked this interview, maybe because I've worked as a journalist, too. And it sounds like a great book. I'm going to have to find it.

  6. Sibella, this is a wonderful interview. Your insightful answers and the flow of your writing speak to your experience in journalism and your study in the fiction world. I look forward to reading your novel and wish you great sales.

  7. Sibella, thank you for sharing your journey with us. Geology to fiction really got my attention. I can't wait to read your book.

  8. Wow. That was a FANTASTIC interview. What a weath of wisdom you are for the rest of us. And I can't wait to read your book; it's not the genre I'd usually read, but you've got my curiosity piqued with the whole geology thing. :)

  9. A tip of the hat to home schoolers. Whoa ...

    Very, very interesting. I liked the part about dreaming while awake.


  10. Sibella, I'm reading the book now, and thoroughly enjoying it. The cover and title indicated a more "literary" novel, when in fact this is a very accessible but well-written mystery.

    Thanks for the great interview.


  11. Sibella, you make a simple preacher VERY proud to say, "I knew her when. . . ." Great job - on the novel and in the interview.
    PS: I'll be glad to play myself in the movie!

  12. I'll echo the field - fabulous interview. SASCG has always had the real facility for pith, by which I mean that she states things efficiently and memorably - an elegant husk containing that elemental kernal you can't forget. The book is fabulous - I'm only irritated that it is being marketed, at some levels at least, as "genre" fiction. While her faith is powerfully evident throughout TSCO, bless her, regardless of her intent, its much bigger than that.



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