“Chasing Butterflies” with Robin Jones Gunn

Known to readers as the author of the Christy Miller series and to Hallmarkies as the author of the Finding Father Christmas trilogy, Robin Jones Gunn is a delightful storyteller and a woman of time-tested faith. Her stories have resonated with readers of multiple generations. Her most recent book, Becoming Us, introduces readers to a few new characters while weaving their stories together with more well-known characters from Gunn’s other series. Her writing, whether in novel form or a simple comment on her social media feed, brings encouragement, light, and hope. It is a pleasure to share Robin’s thoughts on writing, faith, and building relationships.

ATG: Last fall, you commented that “All you creatives will understand when I tell you that I woke at 2am and started writing down ideas that were stirred up during my conversation with Brian Bird.” Can you share what ideas began stirring?

Robin: When I met with Brian last fall, I was amazed by his tenacity. He has such resilience – an undaunted ability to stay focused on what he is doing, providing stories for an underserved people group and for opening up possibilities for getting these stories to viewers. I kept thinking, “How do I have that same kind of confidence?” The film industry it so different from the book industry. With books, after three rejections, you kind of move on, but in film, you just keep trying. You know what you have to sell – what God has given you – is good, and when your content holds together and brings light to the world, it needs to be out there.

ATG: At one point, you also reflected by saying “My soul has been deeply affected these past few weeks as I’ve been traveling and speaking and spending time with family and friends.” How does God usually speak to you?

Robin: Mostly through His Word, through quiet time with Him. I’ll see a word or verse that seems illuminated. I’ll explore that idea or verse by studying it, writing it out, or just praying through it. Really, the freefall of creating is an act of worship. Whenever I create something, God speaks to me.

On a trip this past February, I met with a friend who introduced me to a few others from the film and production industry. As we talked about our projects, it felt so “deep calls to deep.” There was this undercurrent of hope in these deep-hearted believers. There I was, crying during this meeting with people I didn’t even know. As I listened to them, it called to me. I could see these rebel forces rising up and I realized that I’m not the only one feeling that God has more for us.

ATG: I’ve experienced that same “deep calls to deep” feeling, often as I read your work. I know readers have been anticipating the release of one of those projects. Your newest book Becoming Us released this month, which is book one of the Haven Makers Series. When did you get this idea for Becoming Us?

Robin: My first prayer about Becoming Us was in February of 2015. I thought I’d jump into it right away, but oh, what a process it is!

ATG: I have to say, I fell in love with it in the first few pages. We all need a group of women to share life with us. In Becoming Us, the narrator struggles to trust her new friends with challenges from her past. You have also mentioned being a part circles where trust was broken. How have you dealt with broken trust?

Robin: With those more confrontational situations – the ones no one ever wants – when both sides are feeling offended and neither can understand the other, it reminds me of what happened in the Book of Acts. There was a “sharp contention” between Paul and John Mark and they went their separate ways. Some commentaries suggest that years later there is a message of greeting to John Mark in the Epistles that hints at a reconciliation. When you’re in the midst of a disagreement, even if you both love God and are trying your hardest, you might just have to walk away for a season. You need to be in tune enough to knowing what God has called you to do so that you can move forward, even if it means stepping away from a relationship.

ATG: I dealt with a similar break in trust just over a year ago, but now I’ve found a strong circle of friends. In fact, one friend just finished Becoming Us. After reading the part of the book where Tess shares her “favorite thing” with the group, my friend decided to make her own version of “Slippers” and shared it with me.

Robin: That’s incredible! I already have a few emails from readers asking for the recipe. How can you engineer a response like that, something so simple that touches readers? You can’t. When I was writing that scene, I had a mix of oils diffusing and it was so fragrant and soothing I pictured the characters enjoying the same thing.

ATG: I love it! In fact, I’m wearing “Slippers” right now. As you said you were in the middle of writing that scene, I’m curious. What did your writing process look like? Do you write in small chunks and ask for feedback along the way?

Robin: I used to write in pieces and get feedback a chapter at a time. When I wrote that first Christy Miller book, I read each chapter to the girls in my youth group. I was learning as I went along, but now I write the whole book, get feedback and do a rewrite. When I start a book I can see the beginning and the ending in my mind. About three-quarters of the way through, I can usually see the path of how I will get to the end.

As I began the next book on the Haven Makers Series, I knew it would be from Jennalyn’s point of view. The opening line of the story came to me and I wrote it down about a year and a half ago. When it was time to start writing the book I felt like I was already in that world simply because the opening line was so vivid to me and took me into that world. I just completed that manuscript last week.

ATG: Did you ever reach a point where you just felt dry or where you couldn’t write at all?

Robin: Of course. We all do. Stories need to be pondered. You need to sleep on them. Then you’ll wake up one morning and say, “Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to go!” I think it’s because you needed that time to let the ideas simmer.

Other times, you get into that sweet spot and you don’t want to stop letting the story pour out. I remember when I was writing Sunset Lullaby. I was working on the closing scene that I had in my mind. I saw Todd and Christy dancing on the beach at sunset with Todd singing to her a song he’d written. I had a back injury. It hurt to sit. It hurt to stand. It hurt to write. But I didn’t want to stop the flow, so I was laying on the floor with my laptop in front of me – laying on my stomach and typing. Christy and Todd had their dance, Todd sang in her ear. Very sweet. I should have typed “The End”, but I kept typing. It was like taking dictation. In my imagination I saw them returning to Bob and Marti’s house and to my surprise, a very different final ending poured out. It surprised me and really touched me because of what happened with the characters.

There I was, face-down on the floor, sobbing. My husband came in and was worried that I’d been stuck on the floor and couldn’t get up. When he asked what was wrong, I told him the ending and he understood why it was so surprising. We had the sweetest moment being amazed together at how God can work in such simple, unexpected ways in the heart of an artist.

ATG: That was a beautiful scene. I can only imagine how sweet it was in that moment. Sometimes, when I am in that ‘sweet spot’, I’ll get frustrated by an interruption but then that moment somehow finds its way into my work.

Robin: Oh, I get that. I get interrupted all the time but I’ve found that the most important moments and ideas will remain. They don’t get lost with a little distraction because it’s all being led by Him. Distractions don’t eliminate the core ideas.

Tricia Goyer and I have talked about that. You can be thinking about your novel and planning what will happen but then have to walk away for whatever reason and when you come back, you have a brand new piece to the story puzzle that you didn’t have before the “interruption”. That’s when you know it wasn’t really an interruption. It’s all part of the writing process. There will always be a moment when something else comes to you. Being a writer is like running through life with a butterfly net, capturing the flitting ideas. That’s the joy that comes with creating. It helps if you learn to relax and welcome the mystery of the mania that comes with being an artist.

ATG: As a writer, you are keenly aware of God’s presence. You write very descriptively, with great attention to detail, and that presence pervades your work. Your social media posts often share observations of the world around you, too. Have you considered publishing your own book of poetry?

Robin: It’s funny you ask that. I’ve often considered it. I have binders full of poems I’ve written, and I have two friends who are astonishing poets, one from Hawaii and one from Kenya. I love the cultural influence in their writing. I’ve asked if we could share our poems with the world and they both agreed. Perhaps I’ll compile that project one day.

ATG: I’m sure your readers would enjoy seeing that project come to fruition.

Robin: Their comments always astound me. I picture everybody thinking the way I do in story form or in images and poetry. When someone comments on one of my flowery-type personal posts I’m reminded all over again how unique it is to see life this way. I put a lot of my personal writing into my book A Pocketful of Hope for Mothers. It came out last year and I discovered that gift books can be risky projects. I’ve written so many novels, and since I’m well-established as a novelist it can be challenging to jump lanes and expect readers to come along with you. That’s why I think a book of poetry may just be a hobby project.

ATG: As you shared a bit about your creative process, you mentioned how you develop your characters and that some of the ones you’ve imagined were shelved for later use. Which characters do you have on the shelf still waiting for a story?

Robin: I keep files of pictures of people that I cut out of magazines. When I start a new book I look at the line up of images and it’s like a casting call or audition. The ones who make the cut go into my writing binder for that story. I had developed the back story of the main character in Becoming Us, and I knew what she looked like but the name I gave her was all wrong. It was frustrating because as I typed, her name just didn’t fit. I kept looking at the picture in my binder and asking her, “Is that really who you are?” I pulled out a piece of paper and did that whole middle-school-girl thing where you write names over and over again to see how they look. When I finally wrote ‘Emily,’ I stopped and said, “Oh, that’s who you are. Emily. So nice to finally meet you.”

ATG: As we look forward to more beautiful stories from you, what do you think is the key to creating for you?

Always being aware of the opportunities, being in the flow and connected to how God is leading you. I always journal and write out a prayer before I start a new book. Every project is dedicated to the Lord. That becomes the starting point and then I begin writing what’s on my heart.

While Robin describes the creative process as “running through life with a butterfly net,” it is also a very apt depiction of her story-telling. As we read each of her books, we journey through the mystery with her. We learn to trust new friends, let go of hurts, and take hold of the simple beauties to be found in the path God has called us to take. I hope, if you have not yet joined Gunn’s “Beautiful Readers” on this journey, you will pick up a copy her newest release, Becoming Us, and discover what it means to be a Haven Maker.

To purchase your own copy of Becoming Us, visit https://christymillershop.com/, Amazon, or your nearest bookstore.

You can find Robin Jones Gunn on Facebook (@RobinJonesGunn), Instagram (@robingunn), and Twitter (@RobinGunn).

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