The Candler alumna and first-time novelist talks about reading, writing, and Accidents of Providence
By Shawn Scott 09T
I first met Stacia Brown 98T 07G when I was a student in David Pacini’s Comparative Theology and Literature class and she was a guest facilitator for creative writing. To be quite frank, the class was a wonderful experience! We got to read a novel every week and then come to class to discuss its theological themes. Needless to say, consuming this literature served as a much-needed break from Schleiermacher, Hegel, and other such philosophical heavyweights. The class was so great that a small group of us decided to keep it going with an informal book club the following summer. The group consisted of Stacia, Dr. Pacini, me, and two other students, and we have kept the book club going since that time.
In addition to holding down a full-time job as a major gifts officer at Emory’s School of Medicine—and her faithful attendance at book club—Stacia has recently published her first novel, Accidents of Providence (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). The book tells the tale of Rachel Lockyer, an unmarried glove maker in seventeenth century London, who is being investigated for the murder of her illegitimate newborn. Stacia’s meticulously researched telling of Rachel’s investigation and public trial places the story in its historical and theological contexts as only a first-rate scholar and skilled novelist can, and the book is receiving wide acclaim.
Though we have a strict “what happens in book club, stays in book club” policy, Stacia has granted me permission to share with you here a snippet of one of our conversations about the book and her experience writing it.
What inspired you to write Accidents of Providence?
I began writing the book in 2006 just after finishing the final draft of my dissertation. I wanted to do something totally different, outside of my area of expertise. At the same time, I had all this research piled up from my dissertation. I wanted to explore the moral consequences of inaction as well as action. The consequences of waiting too long—to do something, to become something, to say something—can be disastrous. But we all have been in such situations. You wait too long for that perfect person, that ideal mate. You wait too long to put an offer on the house. You wait too long to pursue a dream and suddenly you can't travel anymore, you can't afford to go back to school. You wait too long to apologize and suddenly a relationship that mattered is irreparably damaged. I’m interested in how lives are changed by waiting, by hesitation, by those moments when we think we should do something but we don't.
How did your time at Candler and Emory influence this book?
I learned to become a more careful and generous reader while I was at Candler—and becoming a stronger reader helped me become a stronger writer. I also learned to think theologically and historically, and those interests played a big role in shaping this novel.
How does theology fit into the book? Are there explicit theological themes in the narrative?
Accidents is set in Puritan London, so by the nature of the time period, many of the characters in the story hold fast to various faith commitments. They also don’t quite know how to live out those commitments in day-to-day life. I’m much less interested in abstract theological themes than in the messy and idiosyncratic ways we try to live up to our internalized expectations of those themes. What is my duty, my moral obligation, to my spouse, for example, or to the one I love? What do I owe my child? What do I owe another person’s child? How about my friend? Who counts as my friend? What happens when our friends fail us?
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My favorite living writer is probably Annie Dillard. My all-time favorite novelist is probably Ernest Hemingway. For historical fiction, I greatly admire Penelope Fitzgerald’s book about the Romantics, The Blue Flower. I read widely and across genres. If it’s got a jacket cover on it and pages inside, I’ll probably read it.
What is it like writing a novel while working full time?
It’s a challenge. But I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember—I’ve always had some kind of major project that I’m working on around and in between all the other daily requirements. I like to complain about it, but secretly I probably like it, or I wouldn’t have been doing it for all these years.
What is your next novel about?
It’s the story of an earnest, young missionary in 1900s San Francisco who accidentally marries the wrong sister. I lifted the idea from the biblical story of Jacob, who wants to marry Rachel, but gets tricked into bedding down with Leah on his wedding night. That story always frustrated me: How could anyone be so ridiculous, so near-sighted, as to wind up in bed with the wrong person? So I decided to run with it. It’s not a bad idea, I’ve discovered, to write about something that bothers you.
Is there anything you think Connection readers would want to know about you and your book?
My experiences at Candler and at Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion gave me the confidence and the training I needed to write this book. My teachers and mentors didn’t tell me how to become a fiction writer. They had no idea that was in the works. But they taught me something that matters more: They taught me to read carefully and to listen intently, to attend to the world around me. For an aspiring novelist, there is no greater gift.
Shawn Scott is director of annual giving at Candler. He’s currently reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.