Melissa Turner Lee on The Earth Painter

The young adult supernatural romance novel The Earth Painter was original published as an ebook in September 2011.  The Earth Painter will be republished in print by Crushing Hearts and Black Butterfly Publishing on May 1, 2012.  It is coincidence that the interviewer and the interviewee have the same last name.

Paul Lee:  The Earth Painter is both very personal and cosmically deep.  It is an intimate romance connected to a vast mythology.  How are these two elements related to each other?

Melissa Turner Lee:  How are they related? To me, the best stories are personal ones. Gone With the Wind takes place in the south right before, during and right after the Civil War. But it zeroes in on Scarlett O'Hara. My favorite books are like that. You feel like there is a whole big world that if you could climb inside that book and go past the pages, you'd still find life and world beyond the story you get from the book. I've been told to take that out of my writing because of pacing and because "people don't read books like that anymore"; but those are still the kinds of books I like, so that's what I write. But for that zero-in to feel real, the world around them has to feel real too.

And the personal aspect, that's what gives a story heart. It's like the difference between the news story that says 200 people were killed in an attack and the journalistic story that follows one man's life, his family, his joys, and then his death in that attack. They both are the same story, but one makes you feel and care.

Paul Lee:  That is a fascinating observation.  In all media ranging from fantasy to hard news, I think the personal element is what gives us the full sense of the majesty of the larger picture.

Did you consciously think of the relationship between the personal aspect of the story and the mythological aspect when you were writing?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I don't think so. I don't really know how the creative process works for me.  I don't set out to write allegory. I don't set out with any theme or agenda but as I write, I can see them. I'm a SOTP writer.

Paul Lee:  What does SOTP mean?

Melissa Turner Lee:  Seat Of The Pants. I don't plot... at all.

Paul Lee:  You say that you do not write with a deliberate theme, agenda, or allegory.  What, then, does The Earth Painter mean to you?  Do you think it means something different to readers?

Melissa Turner Lee:  To me, it is how people's lives changes, and how their view of themselves changes when they develop a relationship with the Maker of the world.

Possibly, it could mean different things to different readers. But that's what I see. Though again, I did not set out with a theme.

Paul Lee:  Then Theo represents God, as his name suggests?

A lot of Theo's characteristics are like those of God, specifically his creativity.  There is even room to believe, for a while, that he literally is God, based on some of the background revealed about him, which I will not spoil here.  And yet, he ultimately is neither God nor the Creator-figure of your mythology, is he?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I would not say he REPRESENTS God. I'd never be able to write a character comparable to God. And again, I don't set out for any of my characters go represent anything.

But I can see how he could be viewed as a Christ-type. Like a husband in a sense is like Christ to a wife, according to Scripture.  A godly husband should carry characteristics of Christ. His nature and love, willingness to sacrifice himself for his bride, a need to protect her.

We are all made in God's image. And like God, we are creative. That is the case for Theo. He was made by the Sculptor and is creative like him. Like I'm creative because a creative God made me.

My husband is not Christ, but many of his characteristics remind me of Christ. I view Theo like that. I can see how he could be seen as Christ-like, but I did not design him to be an exact representation of Christ.

I don't see my writing as Christian fiction. Christian fiction is designed to entertain Christians and probably would not be enjoyed by people of other beliefs. I am a Christian who writes fiction. Much like C.S. Lewis. As a Christian, I can see how Lewis’s beliefs reflected in his writing. My beliefs are a part of me, just like my being a woman and being southern. Those things come out in my fiction. But I'm preaching no sermon.

Paul Lee:  I did not mean to call your writing preachy.  I'm sorry if it sounded that way.  I was commenting on the fact that Theo's name, his creativity, and some of the worldbuilding surrounding him evoke the image of Deity.  Actually, The Earth Painter feels entirely mainstream to me.

Among the promotional materials for the upcoming release is this poem:

The Sculptor was alone. The world was gray, as it always had been.
And then the Sculptor said,
“It is time.
Time for color.
Time for more.
The beginning”
With a word three sculptures became aware. And they needed to paint.
There was Ocean, Sky, Land and Life all painted into place.
Then it ended, just as quickly as it had started.
Then the painters were no longer needed.
But they were still…AWARE.
And it was in this awareness that the battle began.
And continues.

This provides a tantalizing glimpse of your constructed mythology, which is one of the most fascinating elements of the book for me. Did real-world mythology or religion help provide some of the building-blocks?  How did you go about creating this imaginary mythology?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I did use my religious belief that our world was created by God for world building. I thought about Genesis and all the "Let there be..." passages and wondered how that might work. Was there someone obeying those instructions, or did it just happen? I inserted the idea that the creative forces doing those things in my story world were painters.

Theo's name, who he is, the Sculptor they do reflect my belief in Deity. I didn't think you were calling it preachy. I just wanted to make sure no one thinks I write like, "Oh this character can represent God and this character can represent...whatever." They might be "like" those things, but just like a tree in a fictional fantasy world might be "like" trees in our world. I have to base it on something I can relate to.

Paul Lee:  That brings up the prevalent theme of artistic creativity.  Art is personified along with its opposite, science.  And of course, love is a powerful theme as well.  How do these three highly characterized abstractions interact with each other in the story?

Melissa Turner Lee:  Well, I'm a very creative woman married to a highly logical non-creative man, so that influenced my story. I loved the original Star Trek where you see a similar dynamic with Spock, Bones and Kirk. To me art and science are not really opposite. They both reflect the Creator in both real life and in my story. But when split into different beings who are wholly one or the other, their view of how life should be and the Creator that made them is skewed by their own nature. In my story, both science and art are created beings and both are needed. The Painters are the designers of the world while the Sciences are the engineers who give the ideas of the Painters function. Like a designer sketches out plans for a lamp and an engineer makes the lamp work. But in that process, changes happen, and some ideas don't work. And some don't make sense but do work, to the chagrin of logic...such as pandas, but I'll let readers find out about that.

And love is NOT a biological function to continue the species in my story. It is an eternal gift from the Sculptor.

Paul Lee:  How do you perceive the relationship between art, science, and love in real life?

Melissa Turner Lee:  In real life, I still believe art and science were created. But science has been elevated to being the creative force of life and not just a governing force. Science is the rock star everyone looks to, and the true Creator is forgotten. But since I believe in miracles and know people they have happened to – since there are people walking on this planet that rational doctors know should be dead – since pandas are the way pandas are; I believe sometimes science and logic bow in submission to the One who created them.

And in real life I believe love is an eternal gift from God, that we are made to desire a supernatural love story with Him . I guess it's my belief that supernatural love really exists that causes me to write romances about people falling in love with supernatural beings rather than plain old humans. I believe we are attracted to it the same way a baby wants milk. We just know we're supposed to be. It's instinct.

Paul Lee:  We've already discussed Theo a little.  Let's turn to the protagonist, Holly.  How would you best describe her and her personal journey?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I don't want to give too much away, but Holly starts out very self-conscious. Her mother is the cause of much of that. But Holly comes into her own and finds her own talents and beauty by the end of the story.

Paul Lee:  What does Holly's mother, Heather, represent to Holly?  Why have you portrayed their relationship the way it is?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I guess her mom is the source of much doubt in her life. And the was modeled after a real one I watched but could do nothing about. (Not mine. I have a very loving and supportive mother.)

Paul Lee:  How are Holly's experiences applicable to real life?  Is there any specific target demographic that she is especially relevant to?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I have to look at it and think about that. I don't set out to have a lesson. So hmmm...

I guess if I look at my own life experiences and seek to relate to Holly, I would say getting to know the Maker of the world opens my eyes to my talents and purpose for being here, and Holly experiences something similar. I had no target demographic.

Paul Lee:  The background for Holly's experiences is a contemporary community in South Carolina.  Does the town of Chesnee really exist?  Is the setting based on your own native community?

Chesnee South Carolina is my hometown. The high school was real but was replaced. I took drama there.

Paul Lee:  Interesting.  Are there any subtle references or allusions that only Chesnee locals would catch?

Melissa Turner Lee:  The last names are all common to Chesnee. Cruising is not so popular now, but was up until this decade. My dad was born in 1928, and teens cruised there when he was young. And the smell of the auditorium. A friend read it and said she would remember the musty smell of it for the rest of her life. The businesses mentioned are all real, too.

Paul Lee:  Why did you decide to set the story in your own hometown?  How do you think the location or the small-town atmosphere affects the story, or the book as a whole?

Melissa Turner Lee:  Chesnee is just where my mind pictured it happening. And I think lots of people in the world either have lived in a small town or are part of a closed group where everyone knows everyone, so it's relatable.

Paul Lee:  If I remember correctly, some reviews, or at least one review, of the original Kindle version compared The Earth Painter to the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.  Because the original ebook version is no longer listed, I cannot verify this, so please correct me if I'm wrong.  If I'm right, then how do you feel about your book being compared to Twilight?  Do you think that you have whatever it may be that fans look for in Twilight?  I should note that I'm only familiar with Twilight by reputation.

Melissa Turner Lee:  WOW... um yeah. There is a review on Goodreads that compares it to Twilight and The Chronicles of Narnia. I could never presume to suggest such comparison, so I'm flattered.

I hope fans of Twilight will embrace it. I am a Twilight fan myself. I do believe that much of the attraction to Twilight is the desire for supernatural love. So I think fans of Stephenie Meyer could enjoy my book.

Paul Lee:  Would you say that Twilight was a source of inspiration for you, then?

Melissa Turner Lee:  Twilight inspired me to start writing, but I'm not sure that it directly inspired this book. It created the genre I write. I never wanted to write horror, true sci-fi, or true fantasy, but romances with a bit of those elements. So it opened doors.

Paul Lee:  Either directly or indirectly, what else in fiction or literature  or for that matter, in art or music  helped inspire you?

Melissa Turner Lee:  I listen to music before I write but not during. Duran Duran's Come Undone was one. Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls. Real Life Fairy Tale by Plumb. Sing My Love by Jesus Culture. Mirror Mirror by Barlow Girl. These are some of the songs I listened to for The Earth Painter.

Paul Lee:  What authors do you most admire?

Melissa Turner Lee:  Stephenie Meyer. Francine Rivers. Catherine Marshall, Gillian Joy, Linda Chaikin, Margaret Mitchell, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe, and Suzanne Collins to name a few.

Paul Lee:  The end of the version of The Earth Painter that I read promises a sequel.  Do you have any idea when the sequel will be available or what its title will be?  Will there be more than one sequel?  Is there anything you think you can tell us about the story or theme of Book 2?

Melissa Turner Lee:  Yes, there is a sequel. It is due in to my editor by September and should be out around Thanksgiving. Right now the working title is The Man Painter, but it might change. There is only the sequel—two books total.

In Book 2, Holly finally has the chance to have what she wants most, but it will cost her everything.

Paul Lee:  Thank you for taking the time to discuss The Earth Painter.  This concludes the interview.  If there is anything else you would like to say, the last words are for you.

I can't think of anything else. Thank you so much for interviewing me.


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