Dr. Angela Hunt (she just completed her doctorate degree this year) did not envision herself as a writer, attending college instead as a music major. After being encouraged to pursue and develop her gift with words, she returned to college to pursue a degree in literature.
Almost 20 years and 100 works later, The Note , one of her novels, was produced as a movie for the Hallmark channel. She has written magazine articles, business letters, brochures, children’s picture books, books for middle-school readers, nonfiction and fiction books. More than three million copies of her books have sold worldwide, and she has received multiple national awards for her writing.
The Note was published in 2001, the year of terrorist attacks on the United States. Your story is about someone on a plane about to crash writing a note to a child. That’s eerily similar to what happened on September 11, 2001, as victims on the planes and in the buildings tried to contact loved ones.
Angela: It struck me as being sort of uncanny even before we heard all of the stories. I was at a girlfriend’s house on September 11th. We had just finished a book we were writing together, and I was getting ready to fly home. Of course, they closed the airport, so we were sitting in her living room watching the World Trade Center crumble.
I remember looking at her and saying, “I have written about the World Trade Center because I remember looking up some information about the towers.”
So we went to Wal-Mart to find a copy of the book. We found a copy of The Note on the shelf and after flipping through it, I said, “Yes, one of the characters in my book had an office in one of the towers.”
Of course, it felt really weird because the towers were no more. Then we started learning about the plane crashes and hearing about the people getting out those last phone calls because they knew that death was imminent.
I’ve written several books that were published and then suddenly the thing that I wrote about began to take place. It is a bizarre experience.
As the movie goes on, you see Peyton becoming more exposed in her writing and in personal interactions. Does that happen in your writing?
Angela: Sometimes. It depends on how closely the story cuts to my life. Sometimes the stories are very personal, more personal than others. Story lines or themes that concern my children, especially when those relationships are troubled, are the ones that cut the closest. But I know other parents are feeling what I’m feeling as well.
I happen to believe in the sovereignty of God—and I know that some of the things I suffer through are situations He intends me to write about. He brought these trials into my life and I’m supposed to write about them, because maybe my book will help somebody else who is going through the same thing.
How closely does the final version of the film match your book, especially what you consider the heart of the book?
Angela: There were several things that were changed, of course. The location was different. I set the story in Tampa Bay because that’s my home. A lot of little things like character names and little tiny plot points were changed. But I thought the film captured my intentions and my theme perfectly.
The Note is about forgiveness, about how we respond to the message of grace and forgiveness that has been extended to all of us. My book went a little further in that I intended every father in the story to represent God.
In the film, Peyton’s father is dead. In the novel, Peyton’s father is alive and has been trying reach her throughout the whole book. He’s been sending her letters she won’t open, packages she won’t unwrap. At the end of the story, she and King go off to meet her father.
Not everything in a novel can make it into a movie, but the filmmakers certainly did get the gist and theme, and I was delighted with that.
It’s been about 8 or 9 years since you wrote the story. Has it changed any of your relationships or the way you deal with forgiveness and grace?
Not really. I pretty much had a handle on that part of it when I wrote the story. It has been very special to see what’s happened with the book. Usually a novel is out of print in 5 or 6 years--it’s had its run and it’s done.
It took 5 years before the movie was ever made, and so many times I heard, “we’re close, we’re really close,” so I began to say, “I’ll believe it when I see it!” So when I heard “We’re almost done filming,” I was like, “You’re kidding! Really?”
It appears that the book is catching a second wind even now. I think that’s a God-thing.
Hasn’t another one of your novels been optioned for production?
Angela: Namesake has optioned Uncharted and another company has optioned The Elevator. But I don’t believe either of those have begun filming.
You’ve described your writing as being similar to an onion in that it has multiple layers to it. You also said that it’s challenging for you to dig deeper to inject more emotion into your writing, to access those layers. Can you elaborate on that?
According to the Myers-Briggs personality type indicators, most people tend to be either thinkers or feelers. I’m a thinker by temperament and personality, therefore, my books tend to be more plot driven. So the first idea that came to me about “The Note” was the story of the quest: it’s the story of a newspaper reporter who goes after the recipient of the note and has to deliver it to the proper person.
When I finished writing out the first draft of that story I had about 40,000 words. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed thinking, “That’s not a book. That’s not even half a book. It’s missing something. What is it missing?”
Then I realized it was missing the story of the heart, how Peyton’s own heart is transformed through the journey. So I went back to the beginning to start the second draft. I knew I had taken care of the plot part, and now it was time to take care of the inner story as opposed to the outer story. It added another layer, a really important one.
When you go back and add that layer of writing, what are you accessing within yourself to add that element to the story?
Angela: Well, we all have emotions and experiences that we have to mine. It’s not that we sit down and write something autobiographical, but we have to think, “Ok, how did I feel during this episode in my life, and can I transfer that feeling into the story?”
Peyton experienced panic attacks, and I have never had panic attacks. I don’t think I’m prone to them. So I asked a lot of my writer friends, “By the way, if any of you suffer from panic attacks, would you let me know?” I think I got a dozen emails from people who described it in great detail.
So the next time I was driving over the tallest bridge in our area, I thought, “Oh, my goodness! I think I’m having a panic attack!”
I had learned what it felt like. One of my girlfriends had said, “It’s like if you’re driving on a bridge or on a highway and you think ‘I’m going to go off the edge. I’m going to go off the edge.’ You convince yourself that you’re going to go off the edge, then you get all panicked.”
Once they explained that to me, I was able to experience this feeling. So you have to be able to tap into that emotion. It’s not writing the actual situation, but writing the scene in such a way that the reader can experience it as well.
As the body of work you’ve produced has grown, has it become easier for you to access the heart portion and write that for your readers to experience?
Angela: Yes, mechanically. I know now what has to be done. But it’s harder to stay fresh because all my books are very different. I would be bored if I was writing the same sort of story over and over and over again, so I have to write something fresh in each one.
Do ideas for books come completely formed and ready to be written?
Angela: I get pieces of the idea and they all hang out in my head until they’re ready to join up with the other pieces. For instance, for me, every novel needs a unique theme, setting, characters, and plot. And so I’ll get an idea for a neat setting, but it won’t necessarily fit with the characters or with the theme. I have all these little collections of pieces, so I have to wait until a foursome comes together.
You mentioned writer friends. Are you part of a writers’ group?
Angela: Yes. About 9 years ago, 25 of us met for lunch at the Christian Booksellers’ Association convention sort of on our own. We said, “You know, this is so nice being able to talk to other writers.”
Usually we were all running around doing things for our publishers and we never really got together. So I set us up on an internet loop, and now there are probably 250 of us. Everybody in this group has been multi-published, so we don’t spend a lot of time on beginner sorts of issues. We’re more about encouraging each other and trying to be “iron sharpening iron.” We challenge, educate, and commiserate with each other.
How long have you been a published writer, and how did you begin?
Angela: I never thought I was going to be a writer growing up. I thought I was going to be a musician because I sort of inherited the family vocal cords. My first two years of college I was a music major and then I took a year off to travel and sing with a professional group. As it was time to come off the road, our director said to me, “Angie, what are you going to do now that you’re not traveling full-time?”
I said, “I guess I’ll go back to school and finish my music degree. Maybe I’ll teach.”
He said, “You know, you have a way with words. Maybe you ought to think about writing something.” I’ve always know that one of the ways the Lord speaks to us is through our spiritual authorities, so I thought maybe that was a divine nudge. So when I went back to school I changed my major to English and graduated with a degree in literature.
When I finally sat down and decided to be a writer, for five years my goal was not to write a novel--my goal was to help bring in grocery money. While my kids were young I was writing magazine articles, catalog copy, brochures, anything anybody would pay me to write that I could do while the kids were taking a nap.
After five years, I saw an ad in the back of a magazine for unpublished children’s picture book writers. I thought, “I’m an unpublished any kind of book writer.”
So I ran to the library and got a book on how to write children’s picture books, because there’s a blueprint for that like there’s a blueprint for everything. So I wrote up a story and handed it in. A couple months later I heard that it won first place and first place was publication. So suddenly, I was asking the Lord what He was doing . . .
After that, I wrote several children’s books. My husband is a middle-school youth pastor, so I started writing books for that age group, as well as some non-fiction along the way. I’d written 30 or 40 middle-grade novels and my editor said, “You want to try writing adult novels?”
So I started writing adult novels. Along the way over 20 years, I think I’ve written just about everything.
If you could give advice to some new writers, what would you tell them?
Angela: I just spoke last week at the ACFW Conference and I gave them this advice: If we are Christian writers whose lives belong to someone else, I don’t know that we have the right to plan plans and dream dreams and set goals because our calling as Christians is simply to love and obey God.
We walk along the path he puts our feet on, and when we get to intersections, we say, “What now, Lord?”
The world tells writers you should have 5-year goals and 10-year goals and grand plans. I think that my “career” runs totally against conventional wisdom, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Traditional wisdom says to find one genre, one niche, and stick there. Write the same sorts of stories over and over again because readers want to know what they’re getting. That may be true, but my motto is “Expect the unexpected,” because I never know what kind of idea the Lord is going to send me. And who am I to say, “Excuse me, Lord, that’s not how it’s done!” Who am I to do that?