ELIZABETH MUSSER writes ‘entertainment with a soul’ from her writing chalet—tool shed—outside Lyon, France. Elizabeth’s highly acclaimed, best-selling novel, The Swan House, was named one of Amazon’s Top Christian Books of the Year and one of Georgia’s Top Ten Novels of the Past 100 Years (Georgia Backroads). Two Destinies, the final novel in The Secrets of the Cross trilogy, was a finalist for the 2013 Christy Award. The Long Highway Home was a finalist for the Carol Awards. All of Elizabeth’s novels have been translated into multiple languages and have been international best-sellers.
If you’d like to read the, ah-hem, much longer version of my writing journey, here it is (photos included=):
From the time I was six years old, I expressed myself best with words on paper. And I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. In my early years, that passion for creativity came in the form of poems, short stories, and personalized birthday cards for family and friends.
The highest complement I received in high school came from my tough-as-nails English teacher who scribbled these words on my essay: “You have the ability to write well.” Other teachers encourage me to write throughout my school years. Whenever I had a choice in assignments between something to create from my own imagination, I chose the road of creativity.
As I long to write, I also had a deep, intense faith in Christ which made its way into my stories and poems. Even at a young age, I longed to share my faith with those around me, and often, writing was the best medium I could find.
I studied English and French literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I found myself enthralled with the way my courses overlapped, enjoying art history and history as well. My college spiral notebooks became friends to whom I was sure I would return in the years to come to refresh my memory and inform me of art and history and literature.
As a child, my favorite books were Nancy Drew mysteries, horse stories by Marguerite Henry and C.W. Anderson, and Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. As a teenager, I was inspired by Mary Stewart’s mysteries, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Catherine Marshall’s stories of faith and adventure. In high school and college, I marveled at the way Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo wove together the lives of numerous characters from different backgrounds within the greater tapestry of the book. This I longed to do.
While at Vanderbilt, I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Aix-en-Provence, France. That semester changed my life. My grandmother had often spoken to me of travel and literature and history, and that, combined with my studies, convinced me to spend the semester abroad. There, on the walls of great museums, I found the paintings I had studied on the screen in my art history classes. There I saw where great masters lived and wrote. A whole new world, this old world of Europe, opened up to me and I embraced it. But as I explored French cathedrals, I was saddened to see the lack of spiritual interest in the culture at large. The existentialism that I had studied in class played itself out in the everyday life of the French. I returned to the States and to my university changed and challenged. I wanted to go beyond what I had been given, a very comfortable, elite upbringing. I wanted to travel and write and share my faith with others. Did this kind of job exist? I was sure it didn’t.
And then God intervened in another remarkable way that I could have never imagined. After Christmas during my senior year at Vanderbilt, I attended a five-day missions conference for students, (there were 17,000 of us there). I discovered an amazing thing: God had missionaries in France, and I felt God calling me there. Never had I ever dreamed of (or wanted to be) a foreign missionary! My image of a missionary was a little old lady dressed in black serving God in some remote village. God soon showed me how flawed my image was!
After graduation, I spent eight months training for the mission field in Chicago, Illinois and then two years serving in a tiny Protestant church in Eastern France. Serving with me were a young couple, a single woman from Quebec, and a single man from West Virginia. Those were years of testing, learning, and being humbled, years of seeing the difficulty of the lives of simple people living out their faith in a hostile environment. They were also years of preparation. By the time I returned home, I was engaged to that single man, (a wonderful man named Paul) and pretty sure that our future together would one day again involve missions.
Paul and I returned to France in 1989 to help a French pastor start a new church in the city of Montpellier, in the South of France. Never in my wildest dreams as a student would I have imagined that twenty-four of the last thirty years would be spent in France, nor that in France, God would fulfill my life-long desire to write. As a missionary, I wrote quarterly letters explaining my ministry to over 400 prayer partners back in the States. I determined to make these letters interesting, the best writing I could do. I returned to France, married with a toddler in tow, with another baby on the way. My ministry opportunities were limited. And so, those prayer letters became my writing outlet. Also, during the boys’ naptimes, I transformed the day’s catastrophe into an anecdote about life, and thereby kept my sanity.
Once again, I received so much encouragement from those who received my letters, that I kept my dream of writing articles, and one day a book. At a conference for our mission, I , eight months pregnant, waddled up to Jill Briscoe, well-known author and speaker, and asked if I could talk to her about writing. The result of our “talk” was her assignment that I finish an article I was working on, send it to her and she would publish it in her newsletter for ministry wives. She kept her word. Although I wasn’t paid a cent, I was thrilled beyond words. I was at last a published author! I continued to write for Jill’s magazine for women in ministry, Just Between Us, as well as for my missions’ newsletters and magazines.
Long before the word “journaling” existed, I kept a journal, and periodically in that journal I would cry out to the Lord, “If you want to do something more with my writing, show me how.” I also prayed that I would be able to write a book and dedicate it to my grandmother while she was still alive. These prayers went on for over 15 years.
While in the US during the summer of 1994, I attended a writer’s conference and met an editor who had at one time served as a missionary in France with my mission. I signed up for a 15-minute interview with him and presented my desire to write a women’s devotional book. He replied that his company was looking for a woman novelist. My ears perked up and I thought to myself, “I think the Lord has put me in the right place at the right time.” This editor explained to me the proper etiquette for presenting a book proposal to his publishing house and encouraged me to do so. I worked furiously on the project ( I had been toying with ideas for a novel for several years), and a few months later sent him a sixty page proposal–including a long synopsis, a chapter-by-chapter outline, a character sketch of the protagonists and a copy of the first three chapters of the book. He called me immediately after receiving the proposal and enthusiastically said he’d be presenting my proposal to a committee in two weeks. There the committee could choose between several options: they could reject my proposal, show interest but ask that I send them a complete manuscript, or offer me a contract. In the end they offered me a contract! I was beside myself with joy.
The Secrets of The Cross Trilogy: Two Crosses, Two Testaments, Two Destinies
Thus in a rather amazing way, the Lord began to answer my prayers that had spanned over twenty years: that I would be able to write a book and dedicate it to my grandmother while she was still alive. During the summer of 1996, I presented my 82-year-old grandmother with her copy of Two Crosses (Victor Books). Soon after Victor Books, a subsidiary of Scripture Press, was sold to Cook Communications. My second book, Two Testaments, was published by the new owners in 1997. Unfortunately with the change-over, my third and final novel in the trilogy, Two Destinies, remained unpublished in America for 13 years. All three books in the trilogy have been published in German, Dutch, and Norwegian, and I have had the privilege of traveling to each of these countries to speak and sign books.
Then in 2012, finally, the whole trilogy was published. Many readers had written to me throughout the years to encourage me to keep pursuing getting Two Destinies into print. In a fun twist of fate (really the Lord’s perfect timing), David C. Cook (who originally published Two Testaments) offered me a contract for all three novels. The Secrets of the Cross Trilogy was published in the June 2012 (Two Crosses and Two Testaments) and in September, 2012, Two Destinies was in the bookstores for the first time!
The Secrets of the Cross Trilogy takes place during the Algerian War for Independence from France (1957-1962). I chose this setting, knowing that most Americans were completely unfamiliar with that war. Yet daily, the paper were being filled with news of Algeria because of the civil war that is presently going on in that country. I felt Algeria and France would provide a unique, new setting for a novel. Living in the south of France, I also met many people who had lived through the war, either as French citizens, military or Algerians. I had many interview with people, and visited all the sites in France which would be included in this trilogy. What was right before my eyes was more fascinating that anything I could have dreamed up! I also decided to weave some of the French Protestant history into this series, thus choosing the Huguenot cross as a main symbol.
I was especially excited that my first novel, Two Crosses, was published in French in 2001. There are few Christian novels available to French Christians and as a tool for evangelism for people who might never step inside a church but could be attracted to a book which takes place in France. In the past few years, I have been greatly encouraged to hear of this happening.
The Swan House
My fourth novel, The Swan House, (Bethany House, 2001), takes place in my native Atlanta. As with my other novels, I combine recent history with fiction to create the compelling story of sixteen-year-old Mary Swan Middleton and her search for truth. I love Atlanta. My inspiration for this novel came from my upbringing in an affluent neighborhood and the struggles I had as I tried to understand my faith in Christ within the context of wealth. I spent my life watching my mother prepare meals for the poor of Atlanta, working alongside a home missionary from the Southern Baptist church. The stories I heard of God’s miracles in this place were used of the Lord to move me toward missions. The Swan House started out with a schoolgirl’s dare and eventually brings the black and white worlds of Atlanta together. In this book, I hope to challenge the reader to examine her prejudices and find out where she goes to find truth.
Unbelievably to me, this novel has become a type of classic in Atlanta, having been named the top Christian novel of 2001 by amazon and receiving many other accolades. It’s even been on different school’s AP reading list!
I cannot begin to count the number of book clubs which have gone to visit the real Swan House in Atlanta and eaten lunch at the Swan Coach House afterwards, all because of having read the novel. I am often invited to these gatherings and gladly attend when I’m in Atlanta. The Swan Coach House carries many copies of the novel and I often stop by and sign them.
Most recently, I was delighted to discover The Swan House featured in the bookstore at The Atlanta History Center.
The Dwelling Place, (Bethany House, 2005), is the story of a daughter’s struggle to reconcile with her mother and find her place in a family in which she has never fit. Many characters from The Swan House reappear in this novel, which, although set in present day Atlanta, nonetheless takes the reader back into the world of the turbulent 60’s and specifically the events of 1968 in both America and France. The novel examines the themes of brokenness and healing, faith and forgiveness, surrender and sacrifice and gives an honest viewpoint of what the evangelical world looks like from the outside.
The story for my novel, Searching for Eternity, (Bethany House, 2007), sneaked up on me and tapped me on the shoulder as I discovered the city of Lyon and her history. Following hist father’s dubious disappearance, adolescent Emile de Bonnery is forced to leave his native France for Atlanta, Georgia, never suspecting what awaits him in the South of 1964–culture shock, racism, and friendship with a strange girl named Eternity Jones. He brings with him to America and odd collection of ‘treasures’ used by his father during the French Resistance. With the aid of these ‘treasures’, Emile and Eternity find themselves on a journey through abuse, betrayal and prejudice which will ultimately lead them into a spiritual quest for healing. Spanning four decades, their journey unfolds like a spy story and its conclusion shows what happens in the midst of complex human relationships when an adolescent goes searching for eternity.
For Words Unspoken, (Bethany House, 2009), I addressed this question: Do you ever hear voices in your head? You know, that whispering of our conscience that says, “You’re no good’, or “You’re worthless” or “What’s the use in trying; I’m sure to fail”. For many years I battled voices in my head, until I came up with a “battle plan”. Words Unspoken introduces readers to a very colorful cast of character, each motivated with those whispers of the subconscious: A mysterious bestselling novelist, a depressed teen, an eccentric driving instructor, a rogue stock broker, a socialite in trouble, a weary missionary, a desperate book editor. . .
Set against the breathtaking backdrop of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee during the frenzy of the stock market crash of 1987, these characters must choose whether to listen to voices that entice them towards greed, depression, and anger or to a still small voice that offers hope.
When we moved my dear grandmother, Allene Massey Goldsmith, Washington Seminary, ’32, from her apartment to a full-care floor at Canterbury Court, my parents found Grandmom’s diaries from 1928-1932. I was, of course, eager to take a look. The diaries sealed the fate of my next novel: I’d write about 1930’s Atlanta and specifically the life of two girls attending Washington Seminary during the Great Depression. The Sweetest Thing, (Bethany House, 2011), tells the story of two remarkable young women–opposite in every way–fighting for the same goal: surviving tumultuous change.
In the spring of 2010, our missionary lives took an unexpected turn. Paul and I were asked by the president of our mission to become ‘Pastors to Workers’ (PTWs), that is, to give pastoral care, to the missionaries living in Europe. That role has continued to expand over the past nine years. We love our job within the mission, but all the travel that it incurs has made my writing life a bit of a challenge.
Still in the past 9 years, I’ve written two novellas, Waiting for Peter and Love Beyond Limits and three more novels: The Long Highway Home, The Wren’s Nest, and When I Close My Eyes, all the while wandering around in the world of being a ‘hybrid’ author, that is, having traditional publishers as well as self-publishing. Trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart, but I’ll spare you the details because this is already way too long. (You can see why my editors are always asking me to cut out thousands of words from my manuscripts!) To add to the confusion, all of these stories, except for Love Beyond Limits, have come out in Dutch, German and Norwegian before being published in English. If you want to know why and how this has happened, you’ll have to find that story in another post!
Here is the Dutch cover for The Long Highway Home, with the English version cover beside it.
This is the cover in Dutch and Norwegian for The Wren’s Nest. Long story, but it is not yet available in English. Yes, I wrote it in English, but … The Wren’s Nest is actually the third book in The Swan House Series.
I’m thrilled that When I Close My Eyes is coming out in November, 2019, with Bethany House. You’ll see quite a difference between the Dutch and English version covers. I really like both of them.
I find my work as a mother, wife, grandmother (!), author, and missionary filled with challenges and chances to see God’s hand at work daily in my life. Inspiration for my novels comes both from my experience growing up in Atlanta as well as through the people I meet in my work in France and beyond. Many conversations within my novels are inspired from real-life conversations with skeptics and seekers alike.
During college, I once attended a class to help students prepare their resumes. I was asked to describe my perfect job. I wrote that I wanted to live in another country, help people, travel, and write. It sounded foolish and idealistic. At that time, I had never once considered missions. But the Lord knew the desires of my heart. I often say that the Lord pushed me into missions because He knew that this calling was exactly where I could use my gift and talents the best for His glory. I would never have chosen it for myself. But as I have obeyed Him, little by little, He has revealed a plan that far surpassed my hopes and dreams.
Our lives are journeys, and mine has been filled with great joy as well as many difficult, challenging times. Often, those trials, which do indeed teach me ‘endurance’ (James 1:2-4) have inspired scenes in my novels.
I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything in the world.
During my training for missions, the staff emphasized that missionaries must develop a good sense of humor, be flexible and realize that “different is not wrong”. Living in another culture is a great way to be humbled, again and again, and it seems that this is so often God’s way– He humbles us before He uses us. In spite of the many challenges of living in another culture, especially one that is very resistant to the Gospel, I feel privileged to be involved in missions. To talk to others about Jesus, and to be able to write stories about God working in people’s lives is something I will never take for granted. As I watch God change people’s lives right before my very eyes, I have plenty of material to make my novels interesting, action-packed and realistic. I have discovered that God can do far more with our lives than we ever dream possible. This is what I hope to communicate in my books.
To God be the glory!