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This summer, Asbury University will shine a spotlight on some of its alumni who have published in a variety of fields. Dr. Marilyn Shank ’74 recently published “Child of the Mountains,” a novel for youth that takes place in the hills of West Virginia. Previous articles in the series include Bible & Theology Alumni Release New Books.

Marilyn Sue Shank '74 recently released "Child of the Mountains."Q: How did Asbury play a role in your journey to publishing your first novel?

A: I learned to love fiction for kids and teens when I took Children’s Literature as part of my elementary education major. I still remember reading and completing synopses of 100 books on index cards. (That little index file box sat on my desk for years when I taught elementary and junior high. I added to it and referred to the cards often.) We also learned to dramatize books in Children’s Literature to motivate our students to read. And learning to tell a story well is the beginning of learning to write a story well.

Most important, my faith grew during my four years at Asbury. I learned to celebrate God when life was good and to call on Him when life was challenging. I discovered His love sustained me. The faith of my major characters is the foundation of “Child of the Mountains.”

Q: How did you move from an education background into writing?

A: The transition from teaching to writing for children and teens is a natural progression. Teachers know the interests, motivations, needs, wants, hopes and dreams of this audience. Our desire to inspire and communicate with young people can take the form of writing as well as direct instruction.

Twenty years ago, I had a dream after my mother died that I thought would make an interesting story for children. I wrote a draft of what I considered a wonderful little manuscript titled “The Magician’s Wand.” Then I started attending Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conferences, as well as reading books and magazines about writing fiction. Soon I realized I had no clue what I was doing. Just like teaching, writing fiction requires a skill set that must be mastered. I’ve tossed aside several manuscripts that I now consider valuable practice for “Child of the Mountains.”

During the past few years, some physical limitations have kept me from teaching — my God-given passion. I grieved the loss. But then I realized God was promoting me into the next chapter of my life with a new passion — writing fiction, which had previously been little more than a hobby. Being on disability gave me the opportunity to pursue this direction God had for my life.  I’m grateful to Him for having His hand on my life when I could not understand the purpose of my circumstances.

Q: Was “Child of the Mountains” inspired by any people or places in particular?

A: I once attended a writing workshop taught by National Book Award-winning author Han Nolan. She had us take a few minutes to write lies about our family. When time was called, we participants were amazed. By telling lies (characters, setting, plot), we had the freedom to tell the truth about our family. I finally understood verisimilitude — how to make fiction seem true. Underlying all sublime fiction, writers are telling the truth — to themselves as well as their readers.

I am a child of the mountains. I grew up in West Virginia, surrounded by the lyrical dialect spoken by Lydia and her family. The rolling hills and mountains are an integral aspect of the novel — almost a separate character instead of a setting. Lydia’s story is my love letter to all children of the mountains.

In addition, I experienced grief as a child and observed love, pain, joy and faith among my relatives that are woven among the characters in the story. Some of the funny incidents, such as one involving root beer, are based on real family events. Despite the core truths in the novel, I experienced many surprises in the plot, not knowing what would come next until I wrote it.

Q: What do you hope readers take from the novel?

A: I hope that readers from Appalachia, especially young readers, feel pride in their rich heritage and “never forget who they be.” I hope that readers struggling through difficult times realize that by holding on to faith, they, too, will be strengthened until they “cross over into better times.” I hope that readers remember true wealth comes from faith, hope, and love — nothing more, nothing less. As Lydia’s mama says, “We always been rich. We just ain’t had much money.”

Q: Do you plan to write additional novels with these characters?

A: I’m working on a sequel. Lydia’s life changes dramatically in high school. She’s living in a wealthy subdivision in Charleston (the capital of West Virginia) and money is no longer an issue. She struggles with her identity as she tries to conform to her new life and expectations of peers. Also, in “Child of the Mountains,” she promises her mother that she will never allow something to happen when she grows up, but she does allow that very thing to happen, with frightening consequences.

I would love to see Lydia’s story as a trilogy. In the third book, she returns to the hills to teach after graduating from Asbury — I will use the college I know. Her fiancé is fighting in Vietnam, and Lydia is confused about her feelings regarding the war. The diverse viewpoints of the eclectic parents of the children she teaches add to her confusion. Will her fiancé survive the war? At this point, I don’t know.

How do I know when Lydia’s story has been told? I’ll know when I stop hearing more about her life in my thoughts. Whether the second and third books are published depends on the success of the first.

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