Robin Jones Gunn
Robin Jones Gunn is the award-winning, bestselling author of the Sisterchicks books and the Glenbrooke, Christy Miller, and Sierra Jensen series, with nearly 3 million books sold worldwide. In this interview with FaithfulReader.com reviewer Bethanne Kelly Patrick, Robin discusses how the idea for the Sisterchicks novels came about, the relationships she enjoys with her own sisterchicks and how important it is for all women to have close female friends in their lives.
FaithfulReader.com: How did the idea of "Sisterchicks" come about? What made you decide to write about them --- and make it a series?
RJG: Three years ago my dad went to heaven. That year was really difficult. I flew to California ten times to help out and it seemed every book I picked up for the flight was about loss or separation or pain. Death was in the clouds that hung over me every day that year. I didn't want to read about it, too. I wanted to read something that would lift me and fill me with hope for the future. Finding such books turned out to be a challenge.
Writing teachers always say you should write what you know. I know what it's like to have true friends. I am very rich in friends. When I didn't want to make one more trip to California, Donna was the truth-speaking girlfriend who looked me in the eye and told me I must go. She said my presence at my dad's bedside would be the last gift I would ever give him. And she was right.
After that difficult year I floundered, not sure what I should write. My first book was published in 1985 and I'd been writing ever since. After fifty-some published books I kept sensing that God wanted me to write something new. But what? At the time I wasn't even sure I could write my name.
That year of waiting came to an end when Donna and I stole away on a brilliant September afternoon and captured the last of the Indian Summer warmth. We stretched out on a secluded beach along the shores of the Columbia River and did what we do best. We were "us." Best friends. Heart twins. Somewhere in the middle of the talking and laughing the idea for "Sisterchicks" was hatched. I knew then what I wanted to write for the next few years --- stories of women who are deeply invested in the lives of their closest friends and how that friendship changes them.
FR: You currently have two Sisterchicks books in stores, and at least one (set in Mexico) coming soon. How many do you have planned? How many would you like to write? Do you see the series stretching on and on, or do you have a certain natural endpoint in your mind?
RJG: We have six planned right now, including SISTERCHICKS DOWN UNDER and SISTERCHICKS IN GONDOLAS. When the publisher asked me to consider doing more than just the original three books, the editorial committee tossed a lot of great titles at me and I said, "Sounds great but I've never been to Australia. I need to write about places I've been so the books will sound genuine." My publisher said, "Then we'll give you a travel budget so you can go to some of these exotic places and find a sisterchick story just waiting to be told." Is that a writer's dream come true or what? My editor and I went on a cruise to Mexico in the fall and now I'm leaving for Australia in 5 weeks!!! Eeeeeeeee!
FR: The trip in your first book seems so real --- is the book fairly true to the jaunt you took to Finland with your best friend? In what ways is it similar or different?
RJG: Some parts are true but not all. The truest part is that Donna and I DID go to Helsinki and we did go in a sauna with two free-spirited chicks that laughed at us because we were wearing bathing suits. Most of the rest of the story is wildly embellished. One of the sauna sisters, Merja, was the editor who had translated my teen novels into Finnish. She and her friend weren't old, like in the novel. They were my age. We've stayed connected these past eleven years since that visit and we even went to the Frankfurt Bookfair together several years ago. Merja read every word of SISTERCHICKS ON THE LOOSE! as I was writing it and let me borrow a lot of her childhood memories, which I of course embellished some more.
FR: Tell us about "your" real-life sisterchicks, like the friend you went to Finland with. How many close girlfriends like this do you have?
RJG: As I said earlier, I'm rich in friends. Donna and I met at church eighteen or nineteen years ago and I distinctly remember rocking our babies together in the church nursery and Donna saying, "When they grow up let's go somewhere." I always thought that was the best gift one woman could give another --- the promise to go after some unfulfilled dream together. I think that was when I decided Donna would always be my best friend. I have a smallish, yet tight circle of friends. Cindy and Carrie, my prayer pals, went to Hawaii with me to research SISTERCHICKS DO THE HULA! The three of us have met every Tuesday morning for the past nine years to pray for our husbands and kids. We never go to lunch or go shopping. We just pray. And now our hearts are so knit together we're like the three-fold cord mentioned in Ecclesiastics. We're not easily broken.
My editor, Janet, has worked on every novel with me since the first Christy Miller book, SUMMER PROMISE. She makes me look good. We've done 43 novels together. Janet and I went on a cruise together to Mexico to do our all-important research for SISTERCHICKS IN SOMBREROS! I was the bridesmaid in Janet's wedding and I think we've talked on the phone at least every other week since the first time she called me from the publishing house in January 1988.
I have other extraordinary sisterchicks that I'm sure you'll see mentioned on the dedication pages of the upcoming novels. My daughter is at the very top of the list as is my sister Julie.
I have met every week with my Pen Pal Chicks, Jaynie and Meg, to critique one another's writing. Anne lives in the Netherlands, but whenever we see each other it's as if no time has passed and we blithely pick up where we left off. It's the same with Ruby, who lives in Belfast. Ruby and I were roommates when we went to school in Austria at the tender age of 20. My friend, Melody, and I have been to Germany and Puerto Rico, and last week we were sharing a hotel room at a book conference in Indiana. At three in the morning on our third day of being together, instead of being sick of each other, we were laughing so hard I'm sure we must have been disturbing the people in the next room. The interesting thing about all these sisterchicks is that each of them fills a different place in my life. Most of them have never met each other. I think each of them is a gift from God.
FR: What do you think women friends give to one another that they can't get from others in their lives (I have your definition of a "sisterchick" in mind, but would like to get more thoughts from you on the subject)?
RJG: Women definitely fill deep places in each other's spirits. When we were trying to come up with a definition of a sisterchick we settled on: "A sisterchick is someone who shares the deepest wonders of your heart, loves you like a sister and gives you a reality check when you're being a brat." How does that happen? I don't really know. It's one of those spooky-cool mystery things that God does when He draws two people together.
We have thousands --- maybe millions --- of stories that explore the mystery of how that happens between a man and a woman. We call them "romances" and we never tire of hearing how a man and a woman find each other and decide to set their affection on one another for a lifetime. So here's my question. What is it that happens between two women when they become friends for life? What are they? Kindred spirits? Heart twins? Best friends? Where are the stories that explore the impact those friendships have? What life changes happen when one woman has earned the right to speak truth into the life of another woman? My answer to your question is only more questions. Maybe that's why I wanted to write these sisterchick novels. I wanted to explore this spooky-cool mystery of how women fill each other like no one else can.
FR: What qualities are essential for a sisterchick?
RJG: Every friendship is different, so I'm not sure there's a list. Qualities like love, honesty, trust and humor that all come from an open heart would be a good start.
FR: You note on the Sisterchicks website that God changes women's lives through their friendships with one another. Could you talk a bit more about this?
RJG: Again, it's the mystery of how we influence one another when we get into each other's lives. Yesterday we were in the car and I was chatting lightheartedly about something I'm thinking of doing and my daughter said, "How do you think that's going to turn out?" She's seventeen and has definitely earned the right to speak her heart on any topic. All four of us in our family are quite verbal. I didn't expect her question and it made me stop and think through what the outcome might be. We talked about it for another ten minutes and she bluntly told me what she thought. Now if either my husband or son had been in on that conversation, it would have had a completely different bend to it. My daughter and I have our own unique kind of womanly freedom when we talk. It's not always about getting to a final decision but rather a careful examination of all the angles so that in the end it's a shared decision.
FR: What's your own next real-life sisterchick adventure? What was your last one? Given that in both ON THE LOOSE and DO THE HULA the adventures come up suddenly, do you now plan yours well in advance --- or is spontaneity part of the plan?
RJG: As I mentioned earlier, I'm going to Australia. (Eeeeee!!) I'd love to say that anything in my life is planned far in advance but spontaneity seems to rule most of my days. We're working with a travel agent and she's from Australia. I sent her the first two Sisterchicks novels and now she's really into planning the trip for me. Last week she was going over some details on the phone and said, "Oh, and you have to stay at this B&B because Colleen is a true sisterchick and she'll give you recipes for your book." So, see? I have lots of help. Once a woman enters Sisterchickville, she gets it and she's ready to help make the adventure happen.
FR: If you and, say, your best friend Donna, could take a trip/adventure anywhere (money and family obligations no object, and no particular goals, like looking for relatives, in mind), where would you go? What would you do? How much time would you spend away?
RJG: Interesting question, in light of the fact that I'm living this exact dream! Each novel is about a different set of best friends, so in the same way that I went to Finland with Donna, Hawaii with Carrie and Cindy, and Mexico with Janet, I think I'd do just what I'm doing now by dreaming up each trip based on who I'm going with and how much money I can spend. Australia is a two-week trip. I'm meeting up with several sisterchicks over there so we'll see where the story takes itself.
FR: In both ON THE LOOSE and DO THE HULA, one friend in each pair has oodles of money and the ability to spend it freely, which is what makes the exotic adventures possible. Is that an element of fantasy/romance essential to the Sisterchicks series? If so, what should budget-bound sisterchicks consider? If not, why not?
RJG: I thought about doing one of the novels about two neighbor sisterchicks who take a week vacation camping out in their own backyard and taking in the local sites by having an at-home getaway. My husband says that book would be SISTERCHICKS GO TO WAL-MART. I might just do that. Not sure.
No, money is not essential in order to have a Sisterchick adventure. One time Donna and I picked up my daughter after school and the three of us went to a gas station, bought milk and cookies and drove to a park where we spent several hours walking around smelling the lilac bushes and reading poems from a book I brought along. A couple of summers ago Donna and I slept outside on top of our trampoline and watched the stars for hours. It was great until the automatic sprinklers came on at five in the morning and soaked our sleeping bags! The secret of a Sisterchick adventure is to start the event in motion and see where it rolls from there.
FR: What should be off-limits on a Sisterchick adventure?
RJG: The moon, maybe. Jupiter, certainly.
FR: One of the most powerful elements of these books is how native foods/crafts/rituals are woven into the women's paths --- e.g., Penny and Sharon's Finnish sauna; Hope and Laurie's lei-making experiences. Could you discuss how these came up in your writing, and how you researched them?
RJG: I guess the research was in the natural experiencing of those events. I went in a sauna. I've made many leis and have listened to a kapuna or two as she shared her wisdom. If those scenes felt real to the reader it was probably because they were moments that meant something deep and life-giving to me.
FR: Penny and Sharon are older than Hope and Laurie (who are celebrating their 40th birthdays). Do you plan to have Sisterchicks books for other decades? Will you "mix" ages? Why or why not?
RJG: SISTERCHICKS IN SOMBREROS! is about two sisters who are in their 40s. I originally thought they were going to be in their early 60s, but once I started letting my imagination spin their story and create their character profiles, it turned out that Melanie and Joanne are in their 40s. These characters are real friends to me --- imaginary friends, but friends nonetheless. I have older friends in real life. I wouldn't be surprised if some older sisterchicks turn up in later books. Or younger sisterchicks, for that matter. Who knows? There's plenty of freedom for variety in Sisterchickville!
FR: Having asked that question, it's important to note that in both books much older ("wise?") women play roles, too. Did you write these characters deliberately? What can wise women tell us about our secular life as well as our spiritual paths?
RJG: I had to smile when you asked if I wrote those characters "deliberately." I'm not sure anything I write is completely deliberate. I have ideas and intentions about these stories and then I get to know the main characters and it all unravels from there. Several precious older, wiser women have had great influence on my life and so I'm sure their shadows in my life show up as a natural element in these stories.
FR: In a Diary entry on your website, you note an abundance of blessings --- including a cruise to research SISTERCHICKS IN SOMBREROS!, a trip to the Christian Booksellers Association Expo in Indianapolis and a ministry convention in, of all places, Honolulu. How do you adjust your writing schedule for an event-filled year?
RJG: Remember how I said at the beginning that two years ago I didn't even know if I could write my name? Well, I guess that was a season of waiting and resting in the Lord and getting my emotional and spiritual wells all filled up. This seems to be a season of pouring out, and part of that pouring out is writing at every opportunity. I've reverted to a schedule I kept for years when our kids were little. I go to bed early and get up at 3AM, four days a week. Around this house I get the most writing down in those early, hushed hours of the day.
FR: In both ON THE LOOSE and DO THE Hula each main character has idiosyncrasies, some of which irritate the other main characters to the point of distraction! Do sisterchicks strive to accept all of these --- or do they choose to travel with sisterchicks whose habits work better with their own?
RJG: We all have our quirks. Part of what I think these sisterchick characters are teaching me is that love covers a multitude of sins. Grace soothes and heals. Friends who love each other become skilled at extending grace to each other.
FR: On the flip side --- in each book, each main character must deal with a Big Issue (e.g., for Penny, finding her family; for Laurie, finding her artistic way). Do you think every woman, at every stage, has a Big Issue?
RJG: I definitely think there are times at different stages in life when a woman is going along and suddenly BOOM --- something changes inside her and she enters into a new season. Those changes are usually slowly and silently building for a long time before they burst open. Maybe it's like a rose. It's there, dormant and when the time is right a small bud begins to form. If the bud isn't chopped off of the vine, it gets all the right nourishment and one day, BOOM --- this beautiful blossom appears as if it exploded over night. But really it was slowly coming along for quite some time. If I carried out that thought, I'd add that friendship is what helps tend the bud and protect it until the time comes for it to bloom. (Hmm. I just thought that instead of saying BOOM I should have said BLOOM!)
FR: The Biggest Issue, of course, is of your characters' relationships with God. I wonder ---- are sisterchicks always sisters in Christ? Or is similar spiritual growth something for prayer groups, not an issue with a sisterchick?
RJG: This will be an interesting angle to explore in these books. All my sisterchicks are deep-hearted God lovers, so it's easy for me to write from that perspective. One of my older, wiser women friends has a true sisterchick who isn't a Believer and the two of them have the most amazing, close friendship. One thing I think will be consistently strong in these stories is the fact that God is pursuing us. The banner that flies over my heart is the truth that God is the Relentless Lover and we are His First Love. Every book I write speaks to that truth because it's a mystery I have never recovered from and I am continually exploring what it looks like to be pursued by a Relentless Lover.
FR: In your online Diary you quote Oswald Chambers, from MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST: "The main thing about Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the atmosphere produced by that relationship." Obviously Chambers (and you) is talking about the relationship we maintain with Jesus Christ --- but I think this sentence resonates with your Sisterchicks books. Your thoughts?
RJG: Interesting that you said this quote refers to, "Obviously…the relationship we maintain with Jesus Christ". When I wrote the Chambers quote in my diary I took it to mean the relationship we maintain with others. I thought of what Jesus said in John 13:34-35. "Let me give you a new command. Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples --- when they see the love you have for each other."
I guess I was thinking how it doesn't matter how much we work or how much we produce in life. If we don't love others, I Corinthians 13 says we're like a bunch of clanging gongs. We make noise but not music. James said our faith without works is dead. When it comes to relationships, we can interact with a lot of people during the course of our lives, but are we making noise or making music? Are we truly loving each other? That's how Jesus said that everyone would know we're His disciples. By loving each other. Not by knowing a lot or doing a lot. Just by loving each other.
That's the golden thread that knits women together as sisterchicks. They love each other. And out of that friendship comes something appealing and fragrant (BLOOM!) that is irresistible to those who don't have the same sort of relationship in their life. In that sense, the quote applies to both a woman's deep love relationship with Christ and how that is made evident when others see the deep closeness she has with a best friend. Being a sisterchick then becomes a validation that within the heart of a sisterchick grows a deeply rooted relationship with Christ.
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