"Icon" by Georgia Briggs - Conversation with the Author
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Frederica in Arts, Orthodoxy

[December 28, 2017]

Icon A Novel by Georgia Briggs

Frederica: Hi, Georgia! Let me introduce my granddaughter Hannah Parker, who is a senior in high school. She’s a consistent honor roll student, with a longtime interest in fiction, particularly YA [young adult] fiction, and she’s a real book collector. She must have all the YA fiction of the last few years in hardback. Hannah knows a little about publishing through me, and would like to be a book editor as an adult, editing in particular the YA fiction she loves. We hope to learn from you a bit about the process of writing, the decisions an author has to make when shaping a work of fiction, and if possible something about how an editor can help or hurt the process.

Georgia: Hello, Frederica and Hannah! It’s nice to meet another fan of YA fiction! I have lost touch with the genre in the past couple of years (I don’t like to read anything similar to what I’m currently writing because my voice starts sounding like someone else’s), but now that I have more time for reading, I’m going back to that section of my library to look for books.

Frederica: I’m exactly the same, when it comes to avoiding reading the kind of writing I’m trying to do, or rather the topic, since I’m in non-fiction. I have felt guilty about it, since that kind of reading could also be termed “research”! I have to find a balance where I can zip in and research the facts I need to know, without being exposed too much to others’ theories and phrasing.

Georgia: Hannah, do you have any recommendations? I just read Scythe, which my sister gave me, and I thought the idea was really interesting, although I’m not very attached to the characters yet.

Hannah: Unfortunately, the growth of my book collection has declined ever since I began taking AP classes. It’s give and take; take a higher-level class, give away all of your free time. Though I just read the most amazing book, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s the most engaging book that I have read in months, I gobbled it and its sequel up in less than a month.

Frederica: Sounds like I need to borrow The Name of the Wind!

 Georgia Briggs

The Writing Process

Frederica: What comes to mind when you think back over the process of writing and publishing Icon? We have both read it and are your fans.

Georgia: There are lots of things we could talk about when it comes to writing a book. Every author’s experience is probably different, even from work to work. Writing Icon was very different for me than my first novel, The Grey Castle. I labored over ever paragraph of my first novel, but Icon just poured out of me, page after page. I finished the rough draft in a few months, which is the fastest I’ve ever written anything.

Frederica: How did the idea for the book come to you? Did you have a general idea, and start forming it into characters? Or did some part of the story hit you first? I always remembered that Harriet Beecher Stowe had a vivid mental picture of a slave being beaten to death, and that formed the core of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Georgia: I had the idea one night of a child who survived her family’s death and was left with a wonder-working icon. I didn’t have much structure to begin with, but Euphrosyne’s voice took over as soon as I started writing, and the rest of the story came quickly. I’m the type of writer who discovers the book as I go. It can be fun, but also frustrating if I hit a block somewhere along the way. I feel very out-of-control during the whole process, and I am a person who likes to know everything ahead of time.

Hannah: I’m the same way when writing anything, really. I’ll start off with a specific scene, and jump from one clear idea to another, hoping I find a structure along the way. Thank God for editing!

Georgia: Some parts of the story stuck out to me strongly as I wrote them. The scene in the woods near the beginning was one, and the three-day period with the angel at the end was another. I had a sense that I was just typing the action as it happened.

Frederica: I’ve heard of that before. Characters appear to an author, and he or she just writes down what they do. I remember Larry McMurtry saying, about a female character, that she showed up as a fully-made person, and at the end of the book she just walked away, to his regret; he would have liked to write about her more, but she left.

 

The Editing Process

Georgia: Soon after I finished writing Icon, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Ruth. It’s amazing how many similarities there are between growing a book and growing a baby! For the author and the mother it can be a very lonely, though exciting process. No one else knows exactly what you’re going through, and you’re terrified something will go wrong before your dream becomes a reality. The whole time you’re thinking, “Get it out, make it happen!’ And then one day your book/baby comes out into the scary world and you realize it’s out of your control, and you think, “Put it back! Put it back!” But of course, there is no going back, because now the editors have it.

Frederica: I pretty much trust editors, though there have been a few cranks. But I think nonfiction is different from fiction in that regard; I can trust an editor to know his readership better than I do, and to help me express what I want to say more effectively. Fiction is different—the audience is different, it’s not like magazine readers, who are already united by a magazine and expect articles to fit into place. With fiction it must be harder to know when an editor actually has a good insight, and when she is trampling on your purpose or not understanding it or wanting you to write her own story.

Georgia: I was lucky to have a couple of great editors at Ancient Faith publishing who were on the same page with me on almost everything.

Frederica: What were some of the parts that you decided didn’t work or didn’t fit, and had to cut? That can be so painful! Were some of those cases your own conclusion, and some the editor’s idea? And a general question—do you usually trust the editor, or do you fight him/her?

Georgia: We only disagreed about a few minor things besides grammatical stuff (I tend to use the word “that” a lot, and leave out commas all over the place). I was nervous about having to make compromises, but it wasn’t necessary in this case. I did have to go back and add some transitional scenes, which is honestly harder for me than cutting scenes out. It’s very difficult for me to come back to a story I put down a while ago and just jump back in. It’s like when you drop a stitch knitting; it’s hard to fix without unraveling everything else and starting over.

In some creative writing classes I took, I had people tell me to cut scenes or even throw out my whole story and go in a completely different direction. When that happened, I kept the old version for myself and tried taking their advice to see what the outcome would be. Sometimes I liked it, sometimes not. One of the reasons I decided to stop going to those classes was that I felt too much pressure to please the instructor instead of pleasing myself. It’s good to take criticism, but when the criticism was “Throw out the whole thing and write my story instead” I got frustrated. Life is too short to write other people’s stories.

So, I guess the answer to your last question is that I trust SOME editors! I have been blessed with great people at Ancient Faith, but I have also walked away from some people who didn’t like my writing. Whether that’s professional or not, I don’t know, but at a certain point you have to stand behind your art.

 Questions about Icon

Frederica: I have a few questions from my nine-year-old granddaughter, Ruth. The first is, “What happened to Olivia? Did she go to heaven?”

Georgia: Ruth—my baby girl is also named Ruth! We call her Ruthie or Ruthiekins, or sometimes Ruthiepants. Good question about Euphrosyne’s cousin Olivia. We don’t learn much about her in the book, but from what we do know, she was a kind, friendly girl who liked to go to church with her cousins, even though the rest of her family didn’t care about God. Olivia also became martyr; she died because she had chosen to go to the Pascha service that night. God sees whenever someone desires Him and follows Him, so I’d guess that Euphrosyne will see Olivia again!

Frederica: Our Ruth is a Ruthie. We were talking about vowels once, and she listed them, but left out “y”. I told her that “y” gets used as a vowel sometimes, but I guess not as often as the other vowels. She stuck out her chin and said “Well I’M going to use it.” And she has spelled her name “Ruthiey” ever since. She was a big fan of Icon. I thought the scene in the “school” might be too strong for her, but it wasn’t.

Her next question was: Why didn’t Euphrosyne go to see Dr. Snead during her three days?

Georgia: Ha! Good for Ruthiey! Poor “y” never gets the respect it deserves. The reason Euphrosyne didn’t go to see Dr. Snead…hmm. I would say that Euphrosyne has a more saintly attitude than most of us do. She wasn’t obsessed with her enemies. She didn’t want to spy on Dr. Snead or waste her time being angry at him. Instead she was focused on loving people like Mimi and her Grandma, people who would be saddened by her death. Even after she died, Euphrosyne was thinking about doing good, not getting revenge or feeling sorry for herself.

Frederica: I don’t think Ruthiey expected Euphrosyne to feel vengeful toward Snead, but curious about him; it does seem like, after the confrontation with Father Innocent, and his having contact with the icon, that he might have had a conversion moment. I wonder if that is an impression that readers tend to have—that among all the characters his story seems the most volatile, like anything might happen, and they wonder what comes next.

Georgia: Ah, I see what you mean. I do wonder what happened to him afterward (which may be a weird thing for the author to say). He seems like a very bitter person, the kind that says “There is no God, and I hate him.” I hope he resurfaces in a future story so that I can find out whether he softens or not.

Frederica: I noticed one comment on your page was that the next book should be about “Heiromonk James Snead.” I could picture it! I loved his depiction on page seventy-eight: “I didn’t know he had bangs.” It both sounded authentic to a child that age, and also was a tipoff to readers of his absurdity. Well-handled. Then “His hair is back to normal, plastered flat against his skull.” I had a momentary flash of Voldemort.

One more question from Ruthiey: Why did Euphrosyne put the icon in the library, rather than somewhere else? She could have taken it to the church, which would be the normal place for it.

Georgia: I think Euphrosyne was hoping someone who wasn’t Orthodox but searching for God would find the icon. It was also a tribute to Mary, hiding the icon in the same place she had hidden the Orthodox books.

Religious Persecution in Icon

Frederica: I have a question about the beginning of the book, when Christians in America are actually being killed by the police/military. The first time I read Icon and ran into that premise at the start, I felt skeptical; I recognize the persecution Christians increasingly face, but this seemed to take it too far. Perhaps it would have helped me to “warm up to it” with a bit of pre-story showing how general contempt had reached the point of fatal violence. (Though I also think that that sort of thing, pre-explanations, can just bog a story down.) I kept reading, though, and once I hit the end of chapter one, when a trickle of blood runs down the icon, you couldn’t pull that book out of my hands. Once I accepted that that was the premise, everything else worked, but it gave me pause at the start. Have other readers said the same? Did your editor encourage or discourage beginning with that premise already in place?

Georgia: My editor didn’t have problems with the concept of Christians being killed by police/military in the story, but I myself wondered if readers would accept the idea.

Frederica: I know you attend an OCA [Orthodox Church in America] church, and of course the persecution under communism, which was undeniably fatal and cruel, is a personal reality to them. Do you think that background had anything to do with your being able to start off with that premise in place?

Georgia: Yes, I go to an OCA church, and my own priest is of Russian descent. He speaks often of the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Soviets. Although we Americans have a hard time imagining our nation (“Under God”) persecuting Christians, that is exactly what happened in Russia, a nation that just celebrated 1000 years of Orthodox Christianity. In the name of “progress” and “patriotism,” priests were killed, children were encouraged to spy on their parents, and churches were turned into museums of atheism. According to the article “A Grim Centennial” by Srda Trikovic, approximately 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, 120,000 monastics, and over a million laymen were martyred in Russia in the 20th century. I never meant Icon as a prediction of what will happen in America, just a story based on a what-if. What if America turned against Christians? What would it look like?

Since the push for religious tolerance (and the opinion that Christianity is fundamentally intolerant) has increased in the past few years, it seemed plausible to me that this is why Christianity would be banned in my fictional America. The rioting in different parts of our nation made it easy to imagine how demonstrations on Pascha could escalate into looting, destruction, and even murder. After such chaos, the government in the story would blame the intolerant Christians of provoking the riots, and outlawed Christianity on the grounds that it led to violence and hate, just as Bolsheviks killed Christians for being “enemies of the state.”

The reason I didn’t go into this more at the beginning of the novel was because, as you pointed out, it would have bogged the story down. The first chapter is filled with drama, and stopping the action for a long, expository conversation would have potentially lost readers. Besides, the story is Euphrosyne’s story, not America’s story, and I wanted to focus on her life and feelings instead of on politics. I’ve had a few skeptics, but for the most part readers accepted the plot. If anything, I’ve heard from more people who think that America is actually headed in this direction. I never meant to write Icon as a political prediction. For me it was all about Euphrosyne’s faith and what she would do under pressure.

Frederica: Yes, I thought the experience of Soviet Christians might be a background factor. It is hard to imagine that all that happened, and not that long ago. I think sometimes of how, when I was a child in the 50s-60s, we thought of Russia as “godless,” when in reality so many saints were struggling to persevere in faith and strengthen each other. There was heroism and great faith in that “godless” land. Did you try to make your depictions of persecution match historical events—to portray in fiction things that had actually taken place? (My spiritual father, now reposed, was in the brainwashing prisons in Romania, and the cruelty was so inhuman as to be demonic.)

Georgia: Accounts of Christians who found ways to secretly meet and worship in the Soviet Union definitely inspired me when I was researching for the novel. The bravery and creativity of those people was amazing. I especially remember an article my priest gave us, which told of women in the gulag who spent weeks smuggling fir branches and extra rations into their barracks for a Christmas party. They found ways to celebrate in spite of everything.

 

Icon’s Structure

Frederica: Why did you decide to write the book in the present tense? It was a good choice. I think it makes it feel more suspenseful.

Georgia: When I started writing the novel, it was an easy way to step into the character of Euphrosyne and see things through her eyes. A lot of YA fiction these days is in first person with present tense. It’s very informal and pulls the reader in, if it’s done right. The hard part is that the protagonist’s voice has to be well-developed and appropriate for the character’s age and background. My own voice is a lot more like Mimi’s would be than Euphrosyne’s. My favorite books are old British fiction, and if I don’t watch myself, I start sounding Brontë-eqsue. Not a good fit for a twelve-year-old from Alabama. Luckily my oldest step-daughter is that age, so I could listen to her talk and get a sense of what Euphrosyne should sound like.

There was also a logical aspect to using the present tense; Euphrosyne leaves at the end of the book. It probably wouldn’t have bothered readers, but if she was speaking in past tense, it would be like she was telling the story from heaven, or looking back somehow. This way she’s free from “all earthly cares” once she leaves. I didn’t want to present saints in heaven as backward looking, but forward looking. Their lives aren’t over, but just beginning.

Frederica: Did you intentionally weave a theme of “watching” through the book? Lots of references to people watching other people, “We’ll see you,” “I’ll have to keep an eye on Mimi,” “I can feel both sets of eyes on me—the man’s and Christ’s.”

Georgia: It was definitely intentional! Thank you, George Orwell!

 

Saints and Characters

Frederica: The two female saints—I recognize St. Nina (who has manifested herself at my church rather deliberately, when we knew nothing about her). But the one with the long, long hair—who is she?

Georgia: The long-haired saint is Virgin-martyr Agnes, who has a very interesting story! She was martyred at the age of thirteen, and her commemoration day is January 21, very close to when Euphrosyne sees her in Icon.

Frederica: Oh, I know St. Agnes. I had never heard of her having extra-long hair before. She’s a good one.

I appreciate how realistic the characters are. Just to pick one, I loved your handling of Aunt Cindy. The details of her obsessive exercising, her anger at Euphrosyne—the whole Christmas sequence, when Euphrosyne feels she has to be extra happy to make up for all that is missing—all that was very emotionally precise and believable, yet conveyed through a girl who is still a child. I think you handled all that so well.

Aunt Cindy made me think of an aunt in a book Hannah had me read, one that has lingered with me, We Were Liars. It’s kind of haunting. It has a similar dynamic with a teen and family members and grief.

Georgia: I read We Were Liars! Good grief, the twist at the end really shook me. I love the old Gothic Romance novels, and We Were Liars had all the classic mystery, romance, and hearty sense of impending doom, just set in modern times. It was a good read. Poor Aunt Cindy. I can see myself reacting that way if, God forbid, I ever lose a child.

Frederica: The introduction of the character Snead was perfect; everything he says is so perfect. When later the grandmother talks of getting a frozen pizza, and he says “I’m jealous!” it was exactly the kind of false-hearty, insincere thing he would say. I liked Euphrosyne’s arguments with Snead, and his cleverness; it seemed very realistic to me, the limits of argument that she would run into.

Is Wart a bulldog? I actually wondered whether he was a pig! A friend of mine had a potbellied pig that was supposed to stay tiny, but grew to the size of a hog. Was a house pet.

Frederica: Wart is based on my Boston Terrier, Scout. He is a sweetheart, but his little squashed nose makes him snort and “snorgle.” He is the size and shape of a large piglet, and he has no tail, which contributes to his overall porcine appearance.

 

Are Saints “Special”?

Frederica: When Euphrosyne is called “special” and an “icon,” did you mean that she was different than other children/people in some way? Or that everyone is an icon, is “special”, to God? She does show more strength or courage than the other children, during the classroom scene.

Georgia: Euphrosyne is special in that she is called to reflect Christ and give others courage and strength. We are all icons of God, created in his image, but Euphrosyne has the blessing and challenge of being a martyr or “witness.” In that way she’s like Esther in the Old Testament. She is called to be at a certain place at a certain time to help others.

There’s a lot we could talk about in regards to being special. Nowadays we tell kids that everyone is special, which is true in the sense that everyone is valuable, unique, and made in God’s image. It discounts the fact, though, that some saints have shown extraordinary love and courage. I know I risk sounding like Napoleon from Animal Farm, saying “all are equal, but some are more equal,” but I think that although every person is important, some people go farther than others in becoming like Christ.

Frederica: I’m surprised to find in myself a knee-jerk reaction against calling anyone special—surprised because I thought I didn’t believe in whitewashing excellence that way! Maybe it’s just the protective reaction of knowing there are certain things you’re not allowed to say these days for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.

But when I think of real people I know, of course I recognize immediately that some go farther in the way you describe. It could be in any skill or physical attribute, but what matters to faith is being more courageous in fighting temptation, and correspondingly more translucent to God’s light. The whole concept of there being saints implies the expectation that some people are just going to be “special,” that way. It makes sense in everyday life, too. I anticipate that almost everyone will be better than me at any sport or physical activity; but those better than me at accumulating vocabulary are rare. I don’t feel like that makes me better; I think of it as something I must have a gene for (my dad was that way, too), a legitimate and worthwhile skill but not one I deserve any personal credit for.

Georgia: I have the same reluctance about saying there are special people, since it seems to imply that some people are not valuable and important. Everyone is valuable and important. What I was trying to say is that maybe some people have the opportunity to do something wonderful, if they are brave enough. If anyone is offended by this, I think we should remember that not being offered the “special” opportunity of martyrdom is also a mercy from God…goodness knows it’s not something to be jealous of!

Hannah: That idea of “specialness” is such an issue. No one wants to imply that some aren’t special, but then again saying that everyone is special is like a catch 22, in that then no one is special. I guess saints are a nicer way of putting it, that everyone is special, but some are just more so.

Georgia: It’s not related to being important or famous, like our society makes it out to be. Maybe a good analogy is that we’re all icons, but our faces are masked by the sins we’ve picked up in life. It’s hard to scrape off the layers of grime and see the reflection of Jesus underneath. Saints like Euphrosyne who die to themselves go farther than the rest of us in renewing the good image God created.

It’s the sort of special that comes from abandoning selfishness and pride, from decreasing that He may increase. I would say that anyone can be special in this sense, but we don’t all choose to humble ourselves and become icons of Christ. I want to be, but I am very far from it personally, and scared of the pain that goes with dying to the world. Lord have mercy!

 

Reactions

Frederica: During the three days, I loved how making the sign of the Cross left a trail of light. What an image! I’ll never forget it. And that Father Innocent’s cross had become permanent. I also loved how, during those days, when Euphrosyne drew near Mimi or her grandmother, they were somehow comforted. It seemed immediately plausible, that it could work that way. Where do readers tell you they get teary-eyed?

Georgia: Most of the readers I have heard from said they were moved at the end of the book. Different parts have struck different people, however; I’ve heard from readers who knew the pain of rejection by family members over their faith, who had been hurt and knew what it felt like not to trust the people charged with caring for them, and who were simply struck with the beauty of Orthodoxy itself. It was amazing to receive emails and comments from these strangers. I never expected to hear from so many people.

Frederica: The whole sequence of her last three days is beautiful. As I reread it I catch more details. And the last sentence is magnificent.

Hannah: One of my favorite things about the book was the emotion behind all of the scenes. Especially in the scene with Grandpa. I don’t always feel intense emotions when I read, but I felt real fear in that scene.

Frederica: The scary scene with Grandpa was really well handled. I like, too, how it was clearly nothing but drunken rage, but when Euphrosyne tells Father Innocent and Mimi that her grandfather attacked her, their responses show they’re alert to the possibility of sexual abuse. It’s great how you can tell the whole story in Euphrosyne’s voice, with her consciousness and experience, and yet shadow through the thoughts of others which she doesn’t even register. I also noticed in the discussion on page 146, she says “This is all a lot to process.” There’s good restraint there, sticking with a twelve-year-old’s comprehension level, rather than going onward and spelling things out.

Hannah: I could totally tell how fun it was to make up details like the flannel scarves the girls wear. I chuckled at those; it’s too relatable as a teenager.

Frederica: A scarf that buttons at the neck was a small detail, but a really original touch that was also completely believable. I know how hard it is to think up something like that, that actually works. I actually kept thinking about it after I finished the book, admiring it.

Georgia: Thank you! Those little things are fun to come up with, because they really give the world of the story depth. Readers remember concrete images.

Frederica: Another detail I liked was the description of the children in the cartoon pictures at the DRT [Department of Religious Tolerance]. They seemed superficially jolly, yet projected something ominous. Do they wear a scarlet A for “Atheist”? “Anarchist”?

Georgia: The murals in the DRT waiting room are actually based on some horrifying, nose-less kids that decorated the wall of the orthodontist’s office where I got four teeth pulled as a kid. The orthodontist insisted that I was not in pain and just making it up before finding that the root of one of the teeth had fused to my jawbone. Most of the DRT building was probably based on that office. Evil. The A’s and five pointed stars in the murals are symbols used by atheists and some Wiccans.

Hannah: It’s crazy to think that those murals in the waiting room are based off of something real. That dentist must have been really awful!

Frederica: Hannah’s mother had a similar dentist story! Whew. Think of what people suffered before Novocain!

Georgia: I still don’t trust dentists.

Frederica: Now that you’ve heard back from readers, is there anything you’d want to change?

Georgia: No, I wouldn’t change anything, even after hearing some criticism about my take on politics. The book wasn’t meant to be a prediction of our nation’s politics, just a story to get kids thinking about how they would react in an environment of persecution. People will read into it what they want to, though. I can’t help that.

Frederica: Oh, I forgot the inevitable question: Are you working on anything now?

Georgia: I’m not working on anything solid at the moment, just writing random bits of character development whenever I have time. I wish I were, though!

Frederica: Hope some of those characters come to life and tell you a story!

 

Icon: A Novel is available from the Ancient Faith Store, Orthodox Christian Ebooks, and Amazon.

Article originally appeared on Frederica.com (http://frederica.com/).
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