Resource Publications (2020)
Review and Interview by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (06/2020)
CHRISTINE SUNDERLAND serves as managing editor for American Church Union Publishing and holds a BA in English literature from San Francisco State University, Cum Laude. She is the author of six award-winning novels about faith and family, freedom of speech and religion, and the importance of history and human dignity. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and an amazing tabby named Laddie.
Hi Christine, Thank you for joining us today at Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your latest novel, Angel Mountain.
Angel Mountain is set in the present day, 2018, against a backdrop of earthquakes, firestorms, and lightning. A holy hermit, a Holocaust survivor, a literary librarian and a Christian geneticist search for peace and happiness in a culture of chaos. The jacket gives a short summary:
“Hermit Abram, eighty, and his sister Elizabeth, eighty-four, escaped the Holocaust in Greece and made it to America as children. Elizabeth retired from teaching high school Western Civilization, and Abram, who retired from teaching classics at U.C. Berkeley, converted to Christianity and retreated to Angel Mountain to pray with his icons for the world and preach from the mountainside.
Elizabeth hires Catherine, thirty-three, to sort her home library. When Gregory, thirty-seven, a geneticist supporting intelligent design, falls from the mountainside and is rescued by Abram, these four lives are changed forever. The earth quakes, fires rage, and lightning strikes, as antifa protestors threaten the hermit and his friends. Angels bridge Heaven and Earth, and eternity intersects time. Is this the end of the world? Is the kingdom coming?”
What inspired you to write this story?
For some time I’ve been troubled by our culture of grievance, depression, and suicide. The mob violence so prevalent on college campuses seemed an acting out of this great unhappiness. How did we get to this dark place? And what is the antidote? How do we heal as a culture and as individuals? And so I open my story with a question posed by my hermit on the mountain: “What is happiness?” The answers worked their way (gently, I hope) into the tale of Angel Mountain.
Angel Mountain is quite a page-turner – fascinating story! How involved was the research since the setting is local for you?
The major themes—ideas—all required considerable research: Western Civilization, what it means, should we abandon it, should we fight for it; free speech and the dignity of the individual; evolution and intelligent design, the latest scientific understanding of Darwin’s natural selection theory; the compatibility of faith and science; the importance of teaching true history to understand the present day; the relation between genetics, eugenics, and the Holocaust, and future ethical challenges; the theology of Heaven and the last days for each of us as individuals. I did a great deal of reading!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Angel Mountain?
The beauty of every person, the intrinsic value of every life, became strikingly clear as I developed my characters. Every human being, regardless of gender, race, or handicap, is fascinating in their own unique way. Also, as a tangent to this idea, the beauty of the natural world that we take for granted—the sun, the moon, the earth, the universe; our immensely complicated bodies and how they work; the cell and the genome and the magnificent elegance of our tiniest parts. There is an ongoing miraculous glory to creation that can be seen anytime, propelled and enlivened by love of the creator. We simply need to pay attention, or, as thy say, be mindful. And we need to be thankful for life and all life around us. We need to pause and breathe deeply the air that fills our lungs and sends oxygen to our brains.
Was there a real hermit living on Mount Diablo at one time?
Not that I am aware of. Native Americans living in the area considered the mountain sacred and would go on pilgrimage there. The name Mount Diablo was a misnomer coming from the Spanish settlers. How the mountain was named is described in the novel, another bit of intriguing history.
You really have some magnificent characters in your story. How do you create your characters?
My characters are based on people I have known, I have read about, and my own life experience. I use bits and pieces from biographies and memoirs, all part of my research. I want my characters to be intelligent and eager to find answers to their personal challenges, so that the reader can find answers too, can follow them on that path.
Which character do you relate to most? Is there a bit of you reflected in any of the characters?
I’m in all of them, to be sure: Abram’s love of icons, Psalms, hymns, and prayer; Elizabeth’s love of history and passion for teaching it to the next generation; Catherine’s love of books and libraries, and her desire to know herself; Gregory’s wonder at all creation and his courage to state the truth. What we love defines us. We are to “order our loves” according to St. Augustine, and echoed by C.S. Lewis, to find happiness, a constant endeavor throughout life.
I hope I’m not too present in the antagonist, Malcolm, but I have known a number of folks who thought as he does. I’ve read about many who acted as he acts out in the story. Many like Malcolm are organizing and implementing today’s riots and the burning of our cities. Unfortunately, my novel has arrived in the midst of this grief and unrest—pandemics and revolution and hatred for America. My characters saw it all coming. Angel Mountain foreshadows it. And it is usually the poor, the innocent, who lose their livelihood if not their lives in these terrible times.
What was your biggest challenge writing Angel Mountain?
Trusting that the story would reveal itself. I had created thorough backstories for the characters, time consuming but highly recommended. Then I created outlines and threw them out and restarted again and again. Finally, I just began writing, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Themes and characters were clear but I wasn’t sure about the ending. I began thinking the geneticist—Gregory—would be the main character, but as things progressed I realized everything pointed to the hermit and his sister, the Holocaust survivors. They would need to meet the other two characters on the mountain, Angel Mountain, and be threatened by my antagonist. The Berkeley student chapel, St. Joseph of Arimathea, in the novel is a real place, a block from UC Berkeley, that I attend, and I prayed for direction as to how to end my little novel. Soon I saw that the secret to the ending was in the chapel itself and on the mountain behind our house. That was about a year ago. I returned to writing and finishing, had several readers look at it as well as my local editor, did another draft, and submitted to publishers by the end of the summer.
What kind of reaction to your writing do you most seek from your reading audience?
I would like my readers to become absorbed and not bored, to keep turning those pages. And I would also like to provoke some self-reflection as to how our country can preserve the good and reject the bad, how we can respect persons of every race and religion, gender, and class.
What do you like to read?
History. But also, good fiction, well-crafted and compelling.
Tell us about the authors that have inspired your own work as an author?
C.S. Lewis and his vision of Heaven in The Great Divorce; Michael D. O’Brien and his apocalyptical novel, Father Elijah. I learned a great deal from the mysteries of P.D. James in terms of craft and character development. Her futuristic Children of Men touched on some of my own cultural concerns. Also, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go encouraged my interest in the future of science, genetics, etc.
In the last few years, I was deeply touched by Yolanda Willis’ memoir, A Hidden Child in Greece, Rescue in the Holocaust, and her story influenced the creation of the character Elizabeth. Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing, a Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ added depth to the backstories of Elizabeth and Abram Levin. Francis Collins’ The Language of God, a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief inspired the character of Gregory. Eric Metaxas’ Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and Why They Can Change Your Life explained the key concepts of Intelligent Design theory and what science has learned in the last few decades supporting it.
Which book has most influenced your life?
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis gave me rational reasons to believe in the claims and creeds of Christianity. My life made sense after that, regardless of the ups and downs.
What do you like to do outside of writing?
Read. My husband and I once traveled a great deal, but in our gentle years we have become homebodies. I read newspapers and journals—print and online—from both liberal and conservative points of view, in an effort to make up my own mind with facts. As an example, I’ve been following the pandemic numbers on the CDC website (Center for Disease Control) since there appears to be some media controversy as to the facts. I’m a culture watcher (okay, sometimes warrior), concerned that Americans are losing their freedoms, especially free speech and its cousin, freedom of religion. My stories gestate in my head—those interior conversations—and are born as expressions of how I see our world. I find that the reading, studying, reflecting, and creating are healing, helping me to organize my thoughts about life and keep me sane.
Angel Mountain just came out recently so I’m sure you’re busy getting the word out! Has your marketing plan changed at all in this time of social distancing? What is your favorite way to promote your work?
“Man plans, God laughs,” is an old Yiddish saying. In February I hoped (the publisher decides) for an Easter release, which would be good timing given there is a resurrection theme. In March we began sheltered in place, I wondered what that would mean to my novel’s release. But Eastertide is a long season—five weeks to Ascension Day. Surely we would be over the lockdown by then? Easter services were virtual in April and my novel was released two weeks later. I was beginning to see there would be no signings, no readings, no public gatherings in the near future.
Being an introvert, this was secretly good news to me. Other writers agreed: we get to stay home and write and not feel guilty. But there are obligations to market the novel as best I can, and I’ve used the online venues that have been useful in the past. Reader Views is one of those, so thank you.
I’ve entered a few awards programs and contacted reviewers in media and academia who might like Angel Mountain. My email newsletter, Novel News, continues to connect my doings with interested readers. I shall do an Amazon giveaway at some point and of course my favorite, social media, although I’m a newbie in that world. I’ve noticed that local bookstores where I have done events in the past are doing online events now with authors through Zoom, which still seems artificial and stilted. We shall see.
My husband has a saying, “Do what you can when you can,” and this has served me well, especially when I feel I have no control over events, which is usually the case. Now that the pandemic has segued into protests and riots, bookselling and book buying seem “nonessential,” and yet books are probably more important than ever, for reading offers simple, inexpensive pleasure while sheltering. Reading stimulates the mind, heart, and soul. It feeds the imagination. There are silver linings and rainbows still. And Angel Mountain depicts a world not unlike today’s—mob violence, firestorms, book-burnings, a hermit sheltering in sandstone caves.
How soon after you finish one project do you begin another? Do you have another book in the works?
I dedicate a year to marketing a title, but I allow myself to jot ideas and quotes down, even make some files for clippings. I clip news articles and highlight Kindle copies—creating files of thematic material for the next book. I had so much material in my head for Angel Mountain, I gave up on outlines and just wrote it. I don’t recommend this, but sometimes you do what you can when you can. It might be interesting to do a sequel involving a pandemic. Not sure. We shall see.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as it relates to writing and what recommendations can you make to up-and-coming authors?
Don’t quit your day job. Writers—even famous ones—rarely make a living at it and most are in the red. The rewards of writing are the writing and creating itself.
Observe life around you, where you are placed at any moment. Live life fully present. Love those in your life—family and friends, even enemies. Jot down descriptions of scenes and people. Describe thoughts and feelings and motivations. Good fiction faces our fallen human nature, our sufferings and imperfections. But good fiction does more than reflect reality—it offers catharsis, a chance for the reader to go through the darkness and come into the light. Offer hope and even joy. We are a mystery, each one of us a glorious creation. Be courageous and say what needs to be said to our culture. Offer a peaceful way forward.
Read good writers so that the rhythm and syntax of the English language dance in your mind. Pray the Psalms and sing the hymns (the best poetry there is) and show others how to dance with angels under stars.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just a sincere thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.
Thank you Christine, for sharing a bit about yourself and your work with our readers!