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Interview: June 2009

June 2009

Melody Carlson is an award-winning Christian author who has penned almost 200 books for both adults and young readers, such as the True Colors and The Carter House Girls series.
In this interview with's Michele Howe, Carlson talks about her most recent book, IT'S A GREEN THING --- the second installment in the Diary of a Teenage Girl: Maya series --- and sheds light on some of the main characters’ thoughts and actions, such as her struggle with faith and her concern for the environment. She also explains why readers are attracted to this confessional format, elaborates on the hopeful message found at the end of the novel, and shares what she has in store for her characters next. IT’S A GREEN THING is the second book in the Diary of a Teenage Girl: Maya series. Because it’s written as a diary, do you believe it’s easier for readers to feel like they’re getting in touch with the main character's heart and soul?
Melody Carlson: That’s the main reason I wrote this series as a “diary.” It’s like sneaking a peek into someone else’s life. Amazingly, I get a lot of reader letters saying how they relate to the various characters in the Diary series. Comments like, “it feels so real” or “it’s just like my life” or “I feel like Maya is my friend…” aren’t uncommon. Teen girls seem especially interested in the goings-on of other peoples’ lives. I guess it’s a little like reality TV.
TRC: From the outset of the book, Maya, as a new Christian, is seeing a real contrast between people of faith and those who don't profess any type of religious preference. How does Maya's recent entrance into the evangelical church scene help her to see the unattractiveness of many Christians’ attitudes and actions better than someone who has grown up in a church?
MC: The Christian life is a completely new experience for Maya. As a result, she has a bit of naivety mixed with subjectivity. Her faith journey is very genuine and she wants to take it seriously, and yet she meets certain Christian characters who challenge her sensibilities. This was something I experienced when I came to faith as a teen. I was suddenly surrounded with Christian friends who had grown up in church and brought some bad habits with them --- like taking God for granted or easily passing judgment on non-believers. I remember being shocked and saddened by this, and I suppose that’s why I allowed Maya to experience similar emotions.
TRC: Maya, eager to better understand the tenets of Christianity, compiles a list of questions she's formulating. Often these queries surround the discrepancies between the lives of other Christians she knows and from what Christ teaches about living a sacrificial life. Given Maya's confusion, how important is it for everyone to find a friend or mentor to help wade through biblical principles while being challenged to live out such faith in the real world?
MC: I would love for all teens (and not just new believers) to be mentored by an older, wiser Christian. It’s an example Jesus gave us when he chose to disciple 12 men. He knew that mentoring was the best way to build solid foundations. My husband and I met while volunteering as Young Life counselors --- we invested our time with high school kids in an attempt to share our faith and experience.
TRC: Maya's life was anything but normal, with a mother in prison and a pop star for a father. Most people want to be standouts, but not Maya. How do you think her past contributes to her desire to simply fit in?
MC: Maya was blessed to have a godly grandmother for a few formative years in her life. And she saw her parents’ marriage disintegrate as a result of her father’s fading fame and her mother’s insatiable appetite for celebrity. She learned early on that the “Hollywood” lifestyle wasn’t all that it seemed. As a result, she longed for something more substantial, real and lasting. That’s probably the main reason she latched onto being such an environmental freak --- being green was like her religion. She didn’t realize that she was really searching for something much larger than saving the planet --- she was searching for a relationship with the One who created the universe.
TRC: Throughout the book, Maya tries to find a balance between going overboard in her "green" endeavors and appreciating (enjoying) everything God made as a gift to humanity. In what ways does Maya's newness to Christianity challenge her former suppositions about how she should eat, dress and live?
MC: It’s a challenge for Maya to determine what parts of being green are sensible, helpful and healthy for her. Like I said, being green had been like her religion. But she realizes that her new relationship with God is more vital. And taking her life one day at a time, and with the help of her faithful mentor Caitlin O’Conner-Miller, Maya slowly sorts out God’s will for her own life. Still, it’s not easy. But then what important things in life are?
TRC: There was a clear and welcome message throughout this text about developing a consciousness about caring for our planet and doing so proactively. Why is it that many Christians who understand that God created the earth fail to care for it?
MC: I think (and Maya agrees) that some Christians take God and the planet for granted. Perhaps they even consider it “faithful” to assume that what gets used up (often wasted) will simply be replaced. But if they studied God’s creation and how nature works, they might think differently. Because Maya respects God as creator, she wants to continue to respect His beautiful creation. As a result, she continues her involvement in encouraging and informing others to be more green too.
TRC: At the close of each chapter, Maya offers a "green tip" for the day. Was it your hope that young people will discover it's easier than they thought to be environmentally aware?
MC: Absolutely! And I wouldn’t expect any reader to embrace all those tips. I can’t even do that. But I hope that certain tips will make sense and readers will want to do them. I find that teens are much more open to being green than their elders. But sometimes they don’t know where to start. Maybe Maya will trigger something in them.
TRC: When Maya meets with her youth group leader, Caitlin, she is challenged to rethink her standards for dating and sexual involvement. From your experience working with and writing for them, how often do teens today stop to consider making a stand for abstinence even within the Christian community?
MC: I think most teens grapple with these questions. And I think most Christian teens want to adhere to sexual abstinence until marriage. Unfortunately there are many factors at play for teen girls (need for love, absent fathers, hormonal teen boys, peer pressure, friends with benefits…), so abstinence remains a major challenge. Consequently, this is a theme you’ll hear in many of my teen books. Let’s face it, teens are thinking about sex. I just want to challenge them to think about all the baggage that comes with it. I try to play out truth and consequences through the comfort zone of a story in the hope that some girls will make wiser choices.
TRC: Maya is falsely accused and then is sued by a fellow Christian, so here we have a double whammy. She is challenged to offer forgiveness on multiple levels. Do you believe Christians must seek reconciliation within the church body as much as, or more often than, those outside of their faith?
MC: Jesus made it clear that believers need to do all they can to work out their disagreements without going to court. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it goes. And equally unfortunately is the image that Christians give to outsiders when they are squabbling and fighting amongst themselves. The heartbeat of the gospel is forgiveness, love and grace…and yet Christians are sometimes sadly lacking in these particular gifts. Consequently forgiveness is another main theme of many of my books. It’s like we can’t get too much of it.
TRC: At one point, Caitlin counsels Maya to face her past honestly and admit that because of how troubled her earlier life had been, she is necessarily going to have to work through difficult and painful issues. Why did you choose to approach this self-examination discussion via a conversation rather than place Maya into a difficult situation that would force her to face these same issues?
MC: Sometimes we find wise counselors who have the foresight to understand that future problems are often the result of past hurts. Caitlin is one of those. And in Maya’s final book, WHAT MATTERS MOST, the past (in the form of her mother) returns to haunt Maya in a big way. And even though Maya is somewhat equipped to deal with it, it’s still a challenge. Fortunately, she has God, Caitlin and a network of support to help her.
TRC: At the end of the book, an auto accident places Maya's friend in a life-and-death position. How does the gravity of uncertainty offer clarification for Maya (and your readers)?
MC: Maya (and several previous Diary characters) have been reaching out to Marissa for years now. But Marissa, like a lot of teens, is a stubborn girl. She thinks she knows what she’s doing and, despite warnings, she just keeps barreling down the road to disaster. Naturally, Maya is brokenhearted when she finds out about Marissa’s accident. And she’s a little angry too --- why didn’t Marissa listen? But isn’t that like life? Still, you have to hand it to Maya when she sticks by Marissa, being a loyal friend when it’s not easy or hopeful.
TRC: You don't create an unrealistic tidy ending, and yet the closing chapter offers some substantial hope to Maya and her friends. How important is it to communicate that, despite the messiness of life, there is always hope?
MC: With God, there is always hope. I suppose that’s the major message of all my books. Because, you’re right, life is messy. Even when you’re trying to do what you think is right, it can be messy. But God doesn’t promise that it will be all neat and tidy and perfect. He just promises to get us through it --- if we trust Him and cling to Him. So many teens have tough challenges these days, if nothing else I would like to remind them that God is there. He’s listening, He can make a difference. Just go to Him.
TRC: Maya's journaling encourages readers to journey right along with her as she learns and struggles and grows. Will you continue Maya's story in similar fashion? What are you working on now?
MC: Maya’s third book (and the 16th and final Diary of a Teenage Girl book) will take her to some very interesting places and choices. And, just for fun, all the previous Diary girls (Caitlin, Chloe and Kim) are involved. It’s like a reunion. What I’m working on…I just finished book two of a new teen series called On the Runway. It’s kind of a follow-up series to The Carter House Girls(Zondervan) and about two sisters who get a reality TV show that’s all about fashion. Kind of like fashion + faith = fun. Or so I hope.