In this episode, Belinda Pollard and Donita Bundy interview Alison Joy, who writes romance novels set in fascinating travel locations. She talks about finding inspiration in location and culture, managing “heat levels” in romance, and the challenge of working out what God wants her to write.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series.
Topics covered in this episode:
- Finding inspiration from location and culture.
- The balance between reality and making stuff up.
- Heat and violence levels in fiction.
- Dealing with uncertainty about how and what God wants us to write..
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More about Alison Joy at https://alisonjoywriter.com/
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode, and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, our co-host, Alison Joy, on writing location-based romance novels.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. I blog for writers at smallbluedog.com and you can find links to all my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my teaching and, more recently, to inspire my urban fantasy series, Armour of Light. You can find out more about that, me and my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Well, we thought it was about time to let you know a bit more about another member of our podcast team, so, today we’re putting Alison under the spotlight to find out more about her third romance novel and her writing career as a whole.
Alison is a former early childhood educator, currently volunteers as a photographer at her local church, is married to Phil, they have four adult children and she joins us today from her Brisbane home. Welcome, Alison.
Alison Joy: Hi! I should say Bula because my latest book is set in Fiji, so, Bula!
Belinda Pollard: Which means?
Alison Joy: Hello in Fijian!
Donita Bundy: Well, Bula Alison. So, you know the score and you obviously know what’s coming next, so are you ready to get into the hot seat? It’s not too bad! We’re going to put in the hot seat and we’re going to fire the rapid-fire five at you. Are you ready?
Alison Joy: Okay.
Donita Bundy: Yes. The answer is, yes! Okay. Who is your target audience?
Alison Joy: My target audience would probably be females ages between 35 and 65.
Donita Bundy: Okay. And what is your main genre?
Alison Joy: My main genre is contemporary romance. It may, or may not, have Christian gracenotes in it. And I’m also, because I was an early childhood teacher, I’ve also got an interest in children’s picture books but that’s another side story again.
Donita Bundy: What is your optimum time for writing?
Alison Joy: I don’t actually have an optimum time for writing because I write whenever I can which is usually within the cracks of the day. Having said that, I do prefer it when it’s quiet. Certain people in my household tend to get up very early and make a lot of noise, so I tend to write after other people have gone to bed so it’s quiet. I just don’t like people roaming around, interrupting me while I’m trying to write.
Donita Bundy: And where is your preferred place to write?
Alison Joy: At the moment I write in my home office. I could prefer to write somewhere exotic, on a location somewhere where I’ve got a good view out the window.
Donita Bundy: Can you tell us, how did you get into writing?
Alison Joy: I am the only girl. I’ve got two brothers and I’m not a sporting person so I’m always reading, reading, reading, always when I was a kid.
And I was just always interested in writing. When I was younger, I used to watch TV shows and if I liked it, in my head, I used to write myself a part in the show so I could be part of the show and its sort of gone from there. I’ve started scribbling down things. I did the usual teenage-angst poetry stuff. I’ve dug out a few of those recently! So, that’s probably how it started.
Belinda Pollard: And how did that progress from there to writing full-blown novels?
Alison Joy: I started writing a few stories, I think, because I read quite a bit of romance when I was a teenager so I thought, “I can do that,” and started writing a few of my own stories but never got very far with them.
It’s always something that’s been on the back burner. When you’ve got four kids, you don’t really have time for yourself so it wasn’t until they were older and then because we had a loss in the family so that sort of made me realise if I don’t do it now, when will I ever do it? So, I just decided, okay, just get in and have a go, basically.
Donita Bundy: Your three books, so, your first, Brushstrokes of Love, is set in and around the Great Ocean Road and your second book, For Love and Charity, starts out on a tropical island and travels up and down the east coast of Australia up to the Daintree. And the current book, Fijian Love Song, is obviously set in Fiji. How did that all come about? Was that a deliberate choice to set in these locations or was it accidental?
Alison Joy: It wasn’t a deliberate choice. It just happened to be where those stories ended up.
Brushstrokes of Love, was one that I got the idea from when I was on a road trip with my son and I thought, well, I wanted to incorporate aspects of that road trip in the story. So, that’s how that one came about.
For Love and Charity, I wrote that actually before Brushstrokes. I don’t know. It’s just how it works out. It wasn’t deliberate.
The Fiji one was deliberate because I wanted to set it in Fiji because I’ve been to Fiji and my daughter lived in Fiji for a few months. That was the only one that was deliberately set – I don’t know if you’d call it exotic. I guess, for some people it’s exotic.
Belinda Pollard: Well, if it’s exotic to the reader, then it’s exotic. It might not be exotic to you but it often is to the reader.
I enjoy those sorts of romance novels where they’re set in an aspirational type of location. Somewhere where you might like to be other than where you are now. And, in fact, I write crime novels set in those locations, too, and that was deliberate – then you get to travel for research!
Alison Joy: Phil and I did a South Pacific cruise a few years ago and we actually went to Vanuatu and New Caledonia as part of that. So, I’m thinking I’ve actually got some vague ideas of a story I’d like to set in each of those locations.
Belinda Pollard: Bring them on!
Alison Joy: I’ve got one daughter that lived in the Philippines and then the one that lived in Fiji has married an Indian guy so Philippines and India are on the agenda too!
Donita Bundy: So, you have a lot of potential for a number of books set all over the world. Did you ever make it to the Daintree? I know that you’ve been to the Great Ocean Road and these other places. Did you go up there or how did you research that part of the book?
Alison Joy: I haven’t been up to the Daintree, only as far as Cairns and west. Just a lot of sitting on the computer and typing a lot of random words in search engines to try and find something.
Belinda Pollard: And when you do the travel, is it that you go on the journey and then you’re inspired and you think about writing or is it the other way around – that you think you might like to visit this place and get some ideas for a novel?
Alison Joy: I think, in future, if I wanted to do books, I would probably do them with a view to writing them down the track but at that stage that was the experiences that we were having and we were going through.
Belinda Pollard: And it does bring richness to it and I think you’ve got quite a strong connection to Fiji, haven’t you?
Alison Joy: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: And I think that really comes through in this third book, Fijian Love Song.
Alison Joy: Background: my daughter volunteered and lived in Fiji for three months out of school and the Fijian family became her second family. So, she’d been back regularly to visit them. As part of that she said, “I’d love you to come and meet my family and the school where I was working.” So, that was our first trip to see where she’d been staying and meet her family. She’s been back a few times and then I’ve been back a couple of times, as well.
The last trip was for a family wedding. Her Fijian cousin was getting married and Danica was invited to the wedding and I sort of invited myself and Tionne, as well. All three of us went to that wedding. So, that features quite significantly in the book that the characters in the story actually attend a Fijian wedding. I borrowed very heavily from that.
Belinda Pollard: A lot of people are listening and they can’t see what you’re wearing, Alison, can you just describe it a bit?
Alison Joy: The outfits in Fiji that women wear are sulu chambas. So, it’s a top and a skirt in matching material.
At a wedding, members of the same family will wear the same pattern. So, the Fijian family that we belong to, all wore the same. That’s part of the story because the two characters who are the only two white people at the wedding, she turns up and he’s wearing the same shirt – she doesn’t know the cultural thing about it.
Belinda Pollard: And that’s because somebody made it for them and put them together.
Alison Joy: Yes. And thought they should be together so they made them the outfits that matched.
Donita Bundy: And can you explain where the title, Fijian Love Song, comes from?
Alison Joy: Fijians are well known for their love of music and for their singing. All the school kids from school, church, they all sing.
Of course, the main song that is probably most connected with Fiji is one called Isa Lei which is: even though you’re leaving, please don’t forget me, come back. If you go to a resort and you leave, they will probably sing that to you as you leave.
Donita Bundy: And it’s a big part of their culture.
Belinda Pollard: It’s interesting how you’re getting various kinds of inspiration from the location and from the customs. Do you do that, too, Donita?
Donita Bundy: They are actually set in historical cities. I, like Alison, did for the Daintree, I spent a lot of time on Google Maps and I look around and I do a lot of historical research and then from that, yes, I get the inspiration to put elements of that into the story for context but I can’t get over to Turkey but I did use a city I know well as the background for the current one.
Belinda Pollard: I’ve written a novel set in the New Zealand wilderness and I had to have my characters get lost. I had been to this wilderness and I’d actually done a four-day trek through it which nearly killed me but that’s another story. But I needed my characters to go to other places and I bought all the topographical maps and I was just driving myself crazy trying to figure out: how far are they going to get in a day? Where can I put them? Because I had to get them out there and get them lost and it was such a revelation to me when I realised, I could make it up!
Alison Joy: The island at the start of For Love and Charity I’ve said go from Singapore to Guam, hang a right and it’s out there somewhere. So, I had to find the islands, the Marshall Islands or the Mariana Islands, and look around and try and find something that matched what I thought this island was like. It’s made up but you want it to sound not made up! Does that make sense?
Donita Bundy: Yes!
Belinda Pollard: Yes!
Alison Joy: That’s the aim, I think, make it plausible.
Donita Bundy: So, Alison, writing romance and you want to write in the secular world that’s like a real tension there, how do you deal with your heat levels for a secular audience?
Alison Joy: There’s actually a range of heat levels from absolutely nothing, basically, to really, really, really heavy stuff and everyone has a spot on that continuum that they’re comfortable with.
It’s a bit like Christians with alcohol, drinking alcohol. I don’t personally drink alcohol. I personally don’t think Christians should drink alcohol but many of my friends do and it’s just one of those things. It’s just a continuum that everybody sits on somewhere along the line and you’ve just got to find the spot where you’re most comfortable, I guess, or where you fit.
One of things I would like to see though with romance books is when they advertise it, they should have some indication of the heat level rating on them. Some authors do that which is great but I’ve found a few times that some of them I can tell within the first couple of pages and go, “Nup.”
I really dislike it when I get really invested in a story and I get nearly halfway through and then all of a sudden, it’s just really, really upped the heat level and I’m going, “Oh, yeah, no!” It’s not one size fits all. So, if Christian books are supposed to be this level of heat, then some authors push it a little bit more.
I did attend a writer’s group as a guest speaker, local writer’s group, and it was a mixed group. There was actually quite a few males in it which I was surprised they actually read the book. This was For Love and Charity and the heat level is a little bit higher in that one, not hugely so, and they were expecting more. Where was all the heat? They were basically saying it wasn’t true enough to real life.
Donita Bundy: They were expecting more graphic writing?
Alison Joy: They were expecting more graphic.
Belinda Pollard: It’s really hard; isn’t it? There’s a new category, new in the last few years, that Amazon has introduced in romance and I think it’s called clean and wholesome. Is that correct?
Alison Joy: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: And I find it interesting that that kind of followed on after the Fifty Shades of Grey movement. That was so popular and there was a lot more people writing that sort of stuff and a lot more people wanting to read that sort of stuff but then there’s also been this rise of people who actually don’t enjoy that and they’re not necessarily Christians or anything else. They just don’t enjoy that and I think there’s always a readership out there for the point at which we write.
Alison Joy: I remember one book and the couple were basically getting married and they hadn’t even had any kissing and I’m going, “But that’s not probably really right.” You’ve got to find a balance there and I can’t say that I’ve found it but I write where I think the story wins? I don’t know.
Belinda Pollard: And I guess as Christian writers we need to be praying through that, as well. How do we handle that?
I write crime novels so there’s a little bit of heat issues that come in from time to time and there’s also violence issues. So, how blatant am I going to be with the violence because people do die in my novels, they’re crime novels, and how to handle that. And I don’t know that there’s any simple way forward.
You have a bit of violence going on in yours, too, don’t you Donita?
Donita Bundy: Yes. And romance and violence and I also, like what you’re saying Alison, you want to make it real and fit into a real world picture and I had, in my first book, a character that goes all the way through. He’d been living in a gang and then living on the street for seven years by himself. From my understanding and the circles I work in, this person would swear, but how do I manage that and be true to context and yet not offensive to the reader.
In all of these areas, there is a tension to tell a good, realistic, contextual story and yet, be respectful of the reader. Even though I started out as a crossover, I plan for them to be a crossover, Christian and non-Christian, how do you respect our beliefs and what we feel is a good and right thing to do and yet, being contextual?
Like you said, Belinda, prayer is the real thing and I also think that some of my readers are quite elderly and I think, “Could I look them in the face knowing that they’ve read this!” And then I think, “If I don’t feel comfortable being able to have a conversation with my dear friend afterwards, I think possibly I should tone it down or take it out!” So, I kind of use that.
My mum’s going to read this, so how’s that going to affect our relationship!
Belinda Pollard: Two wonderful elderly women from my church actually read Poison Bay, my first crime novel, and one of them, she reads crime all the time, she loved it. The other one doesn’t read crime at all and she said to me, “I said to her, I said, ‘How could Belinda Pollard write such an awful book!’”
It’s not easy, is it? I think we’ve only failed when we’ve stopped wrestling with it and we’ve stopped keeping working through it. And while we’re still working through it and trying to honour God and trying to tell realistic stories, I think we’re still heading along on the right track and it’s good to talk to other Christian writers and find out how different people deal with this.
Donita Bundy: But I think, too, Belinda, we often say about our voice and the word that we feel we’ve been entrusted to tell in story, wrapped in story, with our Gracenotes. We will have a particular audience and it’s not for everybody.
And I think, like Alison was saying, we’re all on that continuum and we will be finding a place with each book we write. It might not be the same place as we progress but we will find a place on that continuum and our prayer will be that the Gracenotes wrapped within that story find the audience and it still honours God and it meets that heart, that seed is planted in the hearts that it was intended for but we don’t want things that we’ve written to offend and take away from those Gracenotes.
Alison Joy: Definitely.
Belinda Pollard: How does your writing process work, Alison? Do you have a regular routine? Do you have a planned schedule for your books to come out? How does it all work?
Alison Joy: It’s pretty much a dog’s breakfast, Belinda!
Belinda Pollard: You have the same schedule as me!
Alison Joy: Yes. Dog’s breakfast is a bit of everything all in together and all over the place. I would like to say I do that but I’m still figuring it out.
There’s the plan and then there’s reality and a lot of stuff that happens is out of my hands. Because I’m independent, I haven’t got a signed contract, so I don’t have the time pressures or the deadlines so the books are out when they’re out. So, that’s how it is.
Donita Bundy: What about writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from that and if you do, how do you tackle it? Go on holiday to Fiji!
Alison Joy: I’d like to say it’s more writer’s procrastination than writer’s block, I would say! I’m one of those people that I feel like to be able to stop and write, I have to do a certain amount of other things first. Like, it’s a reward for working and doing other stuff. I do all my jobs or do housework or do whatever and then I think I can justify to myself that I’ve got time to write.
I’ve got to a certain point and I’m not quite sure what’s happening next, sometimes I go back and reread and reread over what I’ve done. That sometimes helps. Sometimes you’ve just got to get in there and push through and come up with something and then go back and change it later.
It’s like trying to do something else and then that’s mulling over in the background while you’re doing something else. It just depends. Somethings you do more research and that sparks something.
Belinda Pollard: Alison, this podcast was actually your idea in the first place. Back when we were getting Gracewriters moving in 2020, you said, “Why don’t we have a podcast?”
How did that come about? What was the idea? What was the concept?
Alison Joy: I just was looking around to try and find podcasts for Christian writers by Christian writers and I couldn’t easily find any and I’m going, “Well, why don’t we just see if it’s possible to have our own?”
So, I just floated the idea with Belinda and there we have it. I just had the idea. I didn’t particularly need to run with it.
Belinda Pollard: So, thank you, Alison, for prompting that and for leading to a lot of work!
Alison Joy: Sorry!
Donita Bundy: Yes, thanks! Thanks, Alison! It’s been great.
Belinda Pollard: But it has been great.
Donita Bundy: Yes, it has! I’ve personally found being part of the Gracewriters community, as a whole, has been terribly encouraging.
Alison Joy: Everybody is on a different journey and everyone’s got a different story to tell. While I might get overwhelmed by somebody who’s a best seller but somebody else who is a similar pathway to me, a similar point in their journey to me or just a little bit ahead of me, is someone that I can say, “Okay. They’ve done it. Maybe I can, too.”
Donita Bundy: Two things we all have in common is that we all identify as followers of Christ and we all identify as wordsmiths in some sense.
So, Alison, how does your faith, identifying as a child of God, how does your faith interact with your writing?
Alison Joy: I think when you start on your journey and you think, “Okay, God, is this where you want me to be.” It’s sort of nothing that drops into your mind, that you don’t get the answers dropped in overnight, sort of thing. You think, “Okay. Am I in the right spot? Am I not in the right spot? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing? Am I not doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” And you get knocked back and disappointments and you think, “Okay. Does this mean that I’m not supposed to be doing this? Or does this just mean it’s part of the journey and I’m supposed to push through?”
It’s not knowing and I think that’s the hard part. I mean, life is like that, in general, I guess. It’s the not knowing. It’s like, “Okay, God, I’ve got this book here and I believe you’ve given me permission to write it but then how do I promote it and how do it get it out there so other people can read it.
There’s so many different branches I could go down, so many trails I could go down, but which is the right trail for me and could you just tell me which trail is the right trail because I don’t mind whichever trail it is. Just tell me. But He doesn’t tell you! Sometimes you’ve got to go down that trail and then go, “It wasn’t that one,” and come back and then do a side track. It’s like, “God, just give me a download, just for me, just what I should be doing in my writing journey,” and sometimes it’s just figuring it out the hard way, unfortunately!
Donita Bundy: So, you’re praying, obviously, because we can hear that and you’re not necessarily getting the answers you want which would be a direct text kind of thing. Is this challenge of the desire to write and not knowing, is that testing your faith or growing your faith? How is that impacting, that whole world of conflict and confusion and joy of writing, how is that impacting your faith?
Alison Joy: It’s very overwhelming, at times. Sometimes you’ll pray and you get answers and sometimes you don’t and you think, “Well, am I not listening? Am I not listening? Is He telling me and I’m not listening?”
Sometimes you get bits and pieces, encouragement from other Christians and you think, “Okay, well, maybe I am on the right track but, then again, maybe I’m not. They haven’t really heard from God.”
It’s just like a tangled ball of string sometimes.
Donita Bundy: How do you find yourself, now, after your third book to where you were at the beginning? How’s that affected your relationship with God?
Alison Joy: I think I can’t separate it from everything else that’s going on in my life. It’s just one other aspect of it and because our family has been through some hard seasons and is going through some hard seasons, you’ve just got to hang onto God because that’s it. There’s nothing else. You wouldn’t be able to get through it unless you had the faith and I can’t see how people can get through some of the stuff we’ve been going through if you didn’t have the faith.
The writing is part of a coping mechanism, I guess, with life and I’m getting all these ideas for stories and stuff; it’s got to come from somewhere. Your imagination is a gift from God so it’s all part of it and all a gift.
Belinda Pollard: Very complicated.
How can people find you online, Alison?
Belinda Pollard: Excellent. How about I pray for you?
Heavenly Father, we thank you for Alison and we thank you for the way that you have worked in her life in so many different ways, in some very hard seasons and also the way that you’ve given her this amazing creativity throughout her life. And it’s always been there and it’s something that you have nurtured and you have brought out in her. And I pray that you will help her with the times of struggle and trial and you will guide her and lead her in your ways.
And we pray that for all the Gracewriters out there listening, too, who are struggling with different various things and who are trying to seek ways to honour you through all the challenges and through their writing.
And we ask you to bless each one, in Jesus’ name. Amen
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Alison Joy, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Thank you, Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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