On Your Marks is the first book in a new Christian trilogy. And I also publish family-friendly fantasy under my maiden name, C. J. Milbrandt. The Byways books are early chapter books for young readers (K-2). Three brothers take sibling rivalry to new lengths as they compete in a race across their homeland.
♦ Book One: The Blue Door
♦ Book Two: The Hidden Deep
♦ Book Three: The Broken Window
♦ Book Four: The Garden Gate
C. J. Milbrandt
Kim: How long did it take you to work on the Threshold series, from the first idea to the completion of the final book?
Christa: I rustled around, and it looks like I started making early notes on the Threshold Series in 2007. Back then, all I had was a clear picture of a strange boy sitting in a tree. When a girl discovered him and they were both surprised, I liked the direction things were taking. I needed to write the rest of the series so that Prissie and Koji could meet. When my proposal first landed on editor’s desks in fall of 2010, Book 1: The Blue Door was complete. By the time the series was contracted in 2011, Book 2: The Hidden Deep was also done. (Not a bad head start.) The fourth and final book released last winter, in January 2014, making the initial series a seven-year endeavor.
Kim: Where did you come up with the angelic world in the series?
Christa: Oh, there’s a mix of this and that. I began with what we know about angels from the Bible. It was interesting to peer through the eyes of sinless servants who benefit from an eternal perspective. Then I broke some longstanding traditions. No feathers. Names that don’t end in -el. Next, I embellished around the edges. Mentors and apprentices. A rainbow of colors to surround God’s throne. The origins of manna. As with most storytelling, the world has grown to accommodate the needs of the story, and the story has been shaped by the rules of the world I created. This is what I do: make it up, then make it plausible.
Kim: When you first pitched the Threshold Series, you wanted to use a pen name but were told that was a bad idea? How did you feel about having to stick with your own name?
Christa: I’m a behind the scenes kind of gal, so I didn’t like the idea of being shoved into the limelight. My books deserved the attention, not me. But it was ‘Be me … or bye-bye.’ So I put my best foot forward, and here I am. And really, all my little worries were for nothing. I’m pretty good at being me. Been doing it for years.
Kim: Anything new with Threshold?
Christa: Oh, yes. I still spend plenty of time with Prissie, Koji, Milo, Zeke, and the other members of the Threshold cast. I have an angel-themed devotional, to be published in 2015. I also have a monthly column in Christian Fiction online magazine, where I’m currently spinning Koji’s backstory. That serial is titled Angel on High.
Kim: One of the things I appreciate and enjoy about your writing is your literary style. What are some traits in your writing you would describe as unique to you?
Christa: Style is a tricky thing to pin down. So many little things play a part in the patter and flow of sentences. For instance, I’ve always been a word nerd. I think in big words. Since I don’t want my editors to scold me, I’m forever searching for simpler ways to say intransigent and lugubrious. I don’t do bleak or gritty. Foreshadowing is a must. Biblical allusions sneak in, and I’m a firm believer in plausible Happily Ever Afters. I recognize my writing voice, but the emphasis changes with the story and its protagonist. Perhaps my most unique “trait” as a writer is the pleasure I take in both short-form and serial storytelling. I combine both every weekday when I add a chapter to the ongoing Threshold Series companion stories on my blog. It’s a fun challenge for me since every installment is exactly 100 words. It’s a small gift for my readers, whose enthusiasm is such an encouragement.
Kim: You say you started writing on a whim. What do you mean by that?
Christa: Writing was a surprise God had waiting for me. While I thought it was a fine thing for Anne with an ‘e’ and Miss Jo March to chase their literary ambitions, I had none of my own. The only reason I majored in English at college was because I liked to read. It never occurred to me that God might be able to use my nose-in-a-book tendencies down the road. Looking back, I blame goofy letters to a good friend for setting me on the path to authorship. In my efforts to brighten her day and make her laugh, she saw potential.
She: “You should write.”
Me: “I thought that’s what I was doing here. Is my font size too tiny?”
She: “You should write stories.”
Me: “Well, I’m already a writer. I have this freelance Bible study gig.”
She: “Try fiction. I’ll read it. And I’ll be brutally honest.”
Me: “And this is incentive … how?”
That "whim "? Her name is Simone, and The Blue Door is dedicated to her.
Kim: You have a unique perspective on the publishing industry, being married to a former publisher. How has that helped you?
Christa: Patience, because I know the pace of publishing. Sympathy, because an editor’s responsibilities are staggering. Gratitude, because there are only so many slots in a publishing plan. Initiative, because there are creative ways I can work with my publisher toward our mutual goal. And a long view, because publishers are always thinking several quarters ahead.
Kim: How about influences? What were some of your favorite books growing up?
Christa: Writing begins with reading, and for me that meant a wide range of classics, comics, fantasies, mysteries, science fiction, and coming of age stories. I read so many books that I developed a sense for story. And a distinct taste for what I consider “good.” Now, I write the kinds of books I love to read. Favorite authors run the gamut, everything from Shakespeare and C. S. Lewis to Anne McCaffrey and Max Lucado.
Every Encyclopedia Brown mystery
Janette Oke’s prairie romances
J. R. R. Tolkien
Orson Scott Card
Gail Carson Levine
And I’ll always love Sherlock Holmes, especially the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King.
Kim: How old were you when you began writing?
Christa: I was thirty when I discovered a practical outlet for my dual degrees in Bible and English. I’ve written more Bible studies and devotionals than I can count. By the time The Blue Door became my fiction debut, I’d turned forty. That qualifies me as a late-bloomer.
Kim: You mention on your blog, “I’m up at 5:30 when I’m serious about writing.” What are some of your other writing disciplines? Did you establish your routine over time? How has it evolved?
Christa: My writing routine has definitely changed over time. Non-fiction was easy to pick up and put down, but fiction redefined my life. Now, if I don’t write every day, I get twitchy. And I know the point when everything changed. On January 1, 2012, nine months before The Blue Door came out from Zondervan, I decided to have one last fling. I’d always wanted to write a story using a dictionary’s Word of the Day as my daily prompt. So I did. For 366 days (it was a leap year), I wrote and posted chapters to my blog. My ever-looming deadline forced me to set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. Before long, I woke before it went off. Most days, I still do. All that daily writing added up. In my case, to well over 300,000 words. The Galleries of Stone trilogy has since been published under my maiden name (C. J.M Milbrandt).
The Threshold Series
Editor: Prissie has too many brothers. No one has big families any more.
Me: My five children beg to differ.
Editor: You could make Tad and Beau into one person, then combine Neil and Zeke together. Lop off Jude. One geek. One jock. One sister. The perfect American family.
Me: (I needed a day to calm down.) Then I politely explained how each brother took his turn in moving the plot forward. And that was the end of it. (Sometimes a suggestion is just a suggestion.)
Editor: I have a hard time believing a girl Prissie’s age doesn’t have a cell phone.
Me: Don’t even get me started. (But after that little conversation, Prissie started borrowing her dad’s computer to check her email.)
Editor: Do you mind if we change the title of book two from The Chained Deep to The Hidden Deep?
Me: Nope. Go for it.
Editor: Some of us aren’t fond of Prissie’s name. Are you willing to change it?
Me: But … her name has always been Prissie. And Milo calls her Miss Priscilla. And Ransom calls her Miss Priss. How can she not be Prissie? (The name Prissie stayed.)
Editor: You can’t have Grandma Nell drive a station wagon. They’re completely outdated.
Me: I grudgingly changed her vehicle to a mini-van, but my kids can testify. I mark every one we pass on the road in a sing-song voice. One of my sons finally asked, “What’s a station wagon?” My daughter just shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Mama’s the only one who can see them.”
Author/Editor Debates on The Blue Door
I had the honor of editing the Threshold Series with Christa, and one of the traits I love about Christa's writing is her unique, literary style. Her writing is excellent, and we had fun bantering back and forth through comments and tracked changes about certain phrases or word choices. One of the greatest images I picked up from Christa was from a typo (angels vs. angles), and she commented "facepalm," and "bangingheadonwall."
As we worked through the Threshold Series, I came to appreciate even more Christa's talents as a writer. (She caught mistakes the proofreader missed--more than once!) I was very impressed with her unique pacing, the way her story slowly unfolded.
The series involves two settings and story lines. One is the contemporary, real world of Prissie, the other is the spiritual realms around her. As we get to know Prissie, her five brothers, their family apple farm, and the crazy slew of characters around her, we discover (along with Prissie) that she can suddenly see angels all around her. (Some have been people she's known her whole life, like Milo, the mailman, her long-time crush.)
Prissie deals with everyday stuff like school, drama, and friends. As we meet more angels--who don't know why Prissie can suddenly see them--we learn of the spiritual battles taking place around her and her family. But why? The story ties together slowly, brilliantly. The suspense builds over the series. The spiritual battles become more intense as they lead up to the surprise ending.
June 19, 2015: Big News! The Blue Door, winner of the 2015 National Christian School Association’s Lamplighter Award. Congratulations!