Grace A. Johnson
Author Interview: Vanessa Hall
Y'all, I have been meaning to interview this girl for what seems like FOREVER, and it's finally happening!!! Vanessa Hall is an amazing young Christian writer whose debut novel, Unknown, just released a couple months ago and, BOY HOWDY, was it fabulous! Anyway, I'll save the talk about her book for my review (which is coming...eventually...y'all will be the first to know when, I assure you) and move on to talking about the lovely author herself! Her answers to my questions are AWESOME and so inspiring!
What first inspired you to write?
Wow, I wish I had a dramatic story to answer this question. I first started writing when I was nine or ten, because at that point I gained access to a word-processing program. (Some form of Word from the 90s. It still worked!) For some reason I don’t remember, I began writing stories. I wish I remembered why. :)
What are some of the driving forces behind you and your writing now?
Definitely the Lord and my sister, Kristina Hall. If it weren’t for the Lord, I wouldn’t be doing anything, and He gives me the ability to write. Kristina as well is very key for my writing - she’s the best! She’s listened to so many of my rambling problems about plots and general gushing about characters for many, many years. She’s made me keep writing when I probably would’ve stopped!
Can you name any authors who have inspired your voices in different ways? How can you see their influence in your writing?
Kristina again. :) She’s also my editor, so I probably sound a little like her. I’m definitely not even close to as cool as her, but I think a lot of what we’ve talked about over the years comes through in my writing - stuff like avoiding overused plotlines, better writing practices, etc.
I try not to take too much direct influence from authors I read, at least not their exact voices. I’ve had bad experiences with that in the past where I read lots of the same author, and I do start sounding like them. Oops. :) But I love taking little things from lots of authors I read. I can learn something about writing from every book I read - whether that’s phrasing something like they did or staying away from a plotline I thought didn’t work.
What are some of your most favorite books/genres—to read and to write?
Ooh, good question. This is funny. I really enjoy writing romantic suspense (about half of my writing projects are in this genre), but I really don’t love reading it. (That sounds horrible, right?) The romantic suspense that I have read just seemed very shallow. However, I do like some books in this genre, like Susan May Warren (especially her books set in Russia - see that connection?), but in general, I favor historical fiction for reading. I also enjoy writing historical fiction and hope to jump into publishing in that genre someday!
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
Fret about plots. :)
Sadly true right now, but in general … I’m getting a degree in music education, so a lot of my time is taken up with completing school work and learning how to teach kids music! There’s also a lot of practicing instruments in there as well, which is definitely enjoyable homework (sometimes). I also enjoy working out, reading, and spending time with my family.
Looking back, what has changed for you as a writer—be it how you write or what you write about?
Oh wow, so much. I think back to my early days of writing, and it’s amazing how naive and clueless I was. :) I think something I’ve really started focusing on is improving my writing style and making sure it fits that genre and that current book. For example, making sure the characters sound modern or historical in their speech and thoughts (depending on the story), and using either shorter, snappier phrases or longer, more verbose sentences depending on the genre.
Also, I used to just kind of flail through a book and have a very general idea about where I wanted it to go. So now I’m working on tying things together in plots and being really picky about what stays in a draft and what doesn’t. Just tightening stories up. If it doesn’t relate to the plot, it’s gone. Finally, just being really intentional about the message I’m getting across to my readers. My goal is to share the Gospel with my audience and give an accurate portrayal of struggles and triumphs in the Christian life. Publishing made me hyper-aware of this, which is a good thing. I just want to be very clear about what I’m getting across and not leave room for confusion.
Tell me about your debut novel—Unknown! It was an amazing story!
Aw, thank you! Here’s the summary:
He knew there was a cost. He just didn’t know how great it’d be.
Gabriel Kelly returned to Russia for one reason—to bury his parents. After ten years in the United States, he hadn’t expected to return to his childhood home in the face of tragedy. However, after short days in Moscow, he begins to consider if the same call that cost his parents’ lives is now upon him.
Sofia Rykova’s dreams finally came true when she became a principal soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet. One night, though, an old crush walks back into her life, making her wonder if there is more to life than ballet. Gabe Kelly is just as she remembered, just as she longed for—yet religion stands between them.
Unknown to Gabe and Sofia, danger lurks closer than either would have guessed. The deaths of Gabe’s parents grow more suspicious by the day, and Gabe and Sofia are drawn into the midst of a plot neither can escape. Will obedience to God’s call—in spite of their fears and desires—result in a price too steep to bear?
What inspired Unknown?
So many things came together into this novel that it’s not even funny. A lot of my personal passions - namely, ballet and armwrestling - found their way into this book, and I think that’s part of the reason it was set in Russia, because both of those things are quite dominant in Russia. Also, a weird obsession with spies (there’s no spies in there, but just hold on - it’s coming ;) ). Because what better (or worse, if you’re not an author) place is there than Russia for a spy?
And when I came back to the book this year to prep it for publishing, I realized I wanted - or rather, the Lord led me to - explore this theme of sacrifice in spite of an unknown cost. It was really interesting to work through that with my characters, and that was a big inspiration for the theme.
What does your writing process typically look like?
Well, first of all, I get this really weird idea. Then it sits in my head and percolates - maybe for a month, maybe for years. (Right now, there are several stories still in this stage, and they’re going to be staying there for quite a while.) Sometimes I’ll focus on a certain theme I want to get across (eg., suffering in the Christian life or abortion - usually happy topics I love to bring into my books to make happy characters!), or maybe it’s an interesting profession or situation. If I’m being a good author, I’ll try to write things down for the first part of the book. But I’ll be honest - I’m not usually a good author. Most of the time I have an idea of the overall structure, and the climax is planned a bit more in my head, but in general, it’s quite the adventure along the way. Sometimes characters just do things you don’t expect, and it’s so much fun! This is where editing comes in after the fact and cleans up the mess, and it’s much less fun than writing. :)
How do you research your stories?
I am in no way the expert of research. You historical fiction people out there, I’m so impressed. :) The majority of my research for Unknown constituted of YouTube videos. Lots of ballet videos, which was quite fun research. I watched interviews of dancers, especially Bolshoi Theatre dancers, as well as performances (lots of Romeo and Juliet). I really wanted to try to understand a ballerina’s mindset, and some of the interviews were incredibly helpful in showing me how I could shape Sofia into a (hopefully) realistic heroine who was so devoted to her art. Also, I read some travel articles and stuff about Russia and looked up random Russian stuff, as well as reading parts of an autobiography by a Russian ballerina.
So not a ton of research compared to some of you epic historical writers out there, but I tried to really get the flavor of Russia and Russian ballet for this particular book.
Which part of Unknown was the easiest to write, and which was the hardest? Where did you stumble and second-guess yourself?
The easiest to write? None of it? :)
In general, I think Gabe’s POV was easier. I felt like I had a better understanding of his character than I did for Sofia’s. She was harder to capture just because she was an artist at such a high level, so I struggled to really feel like I could express her emotions and mindset accurately. The hardest parts just to write were either the dancing scenes (especially one that happens onstage) or the very end of the climax. I really struggled with keeping the suspense and emotions high and dealing with everything that happened there.
I second-guessed myself so much throughout editing. I don’t really remember second-guessing myself as much when I originally wrote it (again, the flailing), but editing was rough. The overall storyline was pretty solid, but I definitely struggled with more of the “mystery” part of the plot (I don’t consider it a mystery, but we’ll just call it that.) I was worried about readers not understanding because I wasn’t clear enough or the clues weren’t obvious or made sense. I also struggled with some of the very pivotal spiritual scenes, especially where one of the characters becomes a believer. I really wanted it to be very clear, and that was a big lesson in learning to trust the Lord with my writing!
Out of all of your stories (even the unknown ones), which one is your favorite? Why? (Bonus question: who’s your favorite character?)
Ah, yes, another great question. I think right now, my favorite story is the fourth book in the Grace Sufficient series. I’m so pumped to get to that book. One of the characters is absolutely despicable, and the other one is pretty cool, but I love the story itself (probably more than the characters on their own), because it’s a picture of redemption that shows the love of Christ and His Blood that washes away every sin. I am so excited to get to that book! :)
For my favorite character … I’ll just stick with Unknown’s characters right now. I’d have to go with Gabe Kelly. He was relatively easy to write, and honestly just a nice guy. There are a lot of things about him that I admire a lot. He’s a good guy. :)
What do you want, most of all, for readers to take away from your writing?
More than anything else, I want my readers to know the salvation offered in Jesus. If the reader is already a believer, I want them to know the same thing, too, because we need to think on the Gospel all the time! But I also really want to encourage Christians and show Christians living out lives in the real world where things aren’t always sunshine and daisies. I want to remind Christians that the Lord is our only hope, and with Him beside us, we can walk through anything, even the deepest of pain, and He will bring good out of it. So lots of stuff … and of course anything else the Lord wants to say through my fumbling words.
Have you ever endured any discouragement as an author? If so, what inspired you to persevere?
Like, every single night? For some reason, if I’m editing at night, by the time around 10 PM or so rolls around, I’m tired and questioning everything about the book I’m working on. Editing does this to you.
But yes. I have experienced a lot of discouragement, mostly just coming from my own head, which is super helpful. (Just kidding.) Something that I’ve really been learning recently with this project I’m on right now is my complete dependence on the Lord. I can’t do anything without Him, and with each book I edit, I learn that anew and to a greater degree. So lots of prayer.
Also, there’s little things that make me keep going: knowing I’ve already announced this book to my audience, so I can’t really back out now. :) Also, chatting with plots and characters with my sister is super helpful. And sometimes, just taking a step back and leaving the project for an evening or a couple days is really helpful. Sometimes looking back over what you’ve already written helps as well.
One last thing is just remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing. What’s your ultimate goal? This is something the Lord has given me, and I want to be faithful and use my time well and work on this book that will hopefully influence others for Christ. So just seeing the big picture of things instead of a gnarly plot tangle is helpful, too. :)
What are your greatest aspirations for your future, be it as a person or as a writer?
Oh wow. As a person, I want to grow more in my knowledge of Christ and to love Him more every day and live more faithfully for Him. I’d love to teach music someday in a private Christian school as well, but that’s up to the Lord. As a writer .... to publish more books that honor the Lord and be able to reach more and more people. But all in all, to follow the Lord’s perfect plan for my life.
What has being a writer taught you?
So, so much. I think a lot of times, the Lord uses my writing to teach me a lot of things through my characters’ struggles. Obviously, I don’t go through as many problems as my poor characters do (thank the Lord), but some of my struggles have definitely been mirrored in my characters’ lives’ and I learn a lot by writing about them. Maybe it’s easier to see the right reaction to a problem when it’s not your own life but a character’s? Being an outward observer is always easier. :)
Another huge lesson is just depending on the Lord. I have realized I cannot do anything, I’m not half as good at writing as I thought I was, and that everything has to be of the Lord. He will be glorified, all the glory must go to Him, and I must trust Him.
What led you to self-publishing?
My sister, Kristina Hall. She published her first book, Things Not Seen, in early 2021, and after seeing how she published that book, it made me think about publishing. I had heard so many stories about how ridiculous mainstream publishers are that I never really even considered trying to pitch my book to those publishers. (Except when I was way younger and naive and thought I could be published by Bethany House or something. Not happening.) I also have seen a lot of publishing houses that claim to be Christian but really don’t have anything in the way of Christianity in their books. I don’t want to be published by that type of company. Indie-publishing allows so much more freedom. I want to say what I want to say in my books. :)
What are your thoughts for other aspiring writers on writing and publishing?
I think one thing to keep in mind is not to rush publishing. I’m really glad I let Unknown sit for about two and a half years and let myself grow as a writer. Coming back to the story was really helpful because I’d had space to think about the characters, the theme, and the plot, as well as time to explore other genres and stories. However, when you know it’s time for you to publish - which is different for everyone - don’t question it if you know the Lord has called you to it. I second-guessed myself on deciding to publish, but looking back, this year was a really good time for me to dip my toes into the world of publishing.
Also, just be prepared for a lot of hard work, and don’t be afraid to change things in your books. Don’t be afraid to write what’s on your heart. Don’t write for your reviewers and readers. Write first of all for the Lord, and write what you love.
And last of all, pray. Depend on the Lord along every step of the way, and He will lead you and provide for you as He has promised in the Bible.
About the Author
Vanessa Hall is an author, musician, and homeschool graduate. Most days, she is reading, writing, or practicing the violin—or trying to find time for all three pursuits. Currently, she is working toward gaining a degree in instrumental music education. Unknown is her debut novel. Above all, she is a sinner saved and held fast by the abounding grace of Jesus Christ. Learn more at vanessahallauthor.wordpress.com!
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