Truly 'Beautiful'

A Conversation with Cindy Martinusen-Coloma

Topics: Books

Cindy Martinusen-Coloma is author of Beautiful and other young adult (YA) novels. I spoke with Cindy about why she wrote this book and what she'd like to see her teenage readers take away from it. --GRD

The central character of the book is a "perfect" overachieving Christian girl who has to rebuild her self-image after her life falls apart. What gave you the idea to write about a character and a situation like this?

Cindy Martinusen-Coloma: Ellie's life looks great on the outside. She achieves impressive accomplishments, people admire her, and she chooses the right paths. But she's unhappy inside and feels alone in that unhappiness. I wanted to explore that in this story because I see pieces of this in myself and in many people, especially Christians. It's quite easy to become performance based. Yet it's our inner selves that really matter, not how people perceive us (whether in a good or bad light), or how we want to be perceived. It's easy to get caught up in that and to compare ourselves to others and their accomplishments. Though what we do is important, it's really our inner lives that are essential to our well-being, our relationship with God, and our eternal path.

BP: You're writing for a Christian audience about kids, like Megan, indulging in some pretty non-Christian behavior. That has to be a difficult task to pull off. How do you manage to be honest without crossing the line? And why do you feel it's important to do so?

CM: Few Christian teens are sheltered to the point that they don't know what's going on in the world. If I create a scenario that doesn't reflect their culture, it's insulting in a way. But yes, it's tough to know where the line is. The scale of what teens experience is very wide. Some teens are in safe, loving Christian environments, while others have experienced more of the evils of the world than most of us experience in our entire lives. I want to have enough truth that most any teen can identify with the characters and situations, but I also don't want to glamorize darkness or destructive behavior. In Beautiful, the story explores the inner lives of two teens, it's not about premarital sex, partying, etc. So such teen situations are more off-stage or are part of the setting. These outward behaviors also reflect the inner turmoil of the characters.

I feel that without honesty, readers aren't going to connect with the characters or the story. But this is the scary part about writing for teens; there's a sense of responsibility there. I really pray and ask God for guidance as I write, in all my books, but the weight feels heavier when writing YA fiction.

BP: What kind of responses has the book been getting from your teen readers?

CM: I love getting the emails and Facebook messages -- it's moving and encouraging. They most often write about how real the characters are to them, and how they identify with the struggles of the different characters. I get the sense that they feel "known" and understood by reading characters who have similar thoughts, feelings, insecurities, failures and struggles.

BP: Which authors -- both Christian and non-Christian -- do you admire? How has reading their books helped your own writing?

CM: Many writers inspire me. A few fiction authors off the top of my head would be C.S. Lewis, Leif Enger, Graham Greene, Jane Austen, Francine Rivers, Calvin Miller, among many others. Reading great writing helps improve my own craft. But I think reading especially helps to develop the individuality and layers of the characters in my books.

BP: Ellie and Megan both seem to have a difficult time living up to their mother's ideals for what a Christian family should look like. Do you find this kind of thing to be a real danger among Christians? How can we get free from that kind of trap?

CM: The mom has lost her perspective. She's become too wrapped up in what things look like from the outside world, what's polite and acceptable. I find that to be a huge danger for people -- Christian or not -- because our loyalty then becomes toward others or toward a model that doesn't actually exist instead of living an authentic life and loving people even when it's messy or questioned by others. We get free from this by loving as Christ loved. He didn't care if people misunderstood him (he didn't go around trying to explain or justify himself or his message), and he didn't associate with people who would make him look good. He loved without conditions, he was strong and firm when he needed to be, and he communed closely and faithfully with God, allowing God to fight his battles. I'm sure it was easier for Christ than it is for me to love like this, but it's the goal.

BP: At one point, both sisters realize that they don't really know how to love. Why do you think that is?

The teen years are such a confusing time (though all of life is hard). Knowing how to love or who to love or even what is love is something that Megan and Ellie grapple with, and they discover that they must allow God to love them and for them to love themselves (or trust in God's love regarding their identity) to become whole and healthy people who can love others.

BP: The girls' grandfather plays an interesting role here -- he's the only one who really disliked Ellie and preferred Megan. Do you see him more as a voice of reason or a destructive force, or maybe a little of both?

CM: He was very much a destructive force in both of the girls' lives. He opened a deep wound in Ellie by making her feel that she wasn't worthy, which Ellie then tried to compensate through her over-achieving obsessiveness. He also pitted Megan against Ellie because he favored her (which Megan relished since most people favored her sister). On the other hand, the people who blatantly preferred Ellie were a destructive force in Megan's life, and in Ellie's for that matter -- feeding her warped sense that performance equaled value.

I think that any time a person is devalued for any reason, something destructive is born.

BP: One of the central themes in the book is that there are no easy answers in life, even for Christians. Still, are there any ideas or any food for thought that you hope your readers take away?

CM: One would be that there is no one way that God takes all of us. There's a danger in thinking everything is black and white, that there is one way for everybody. Just like Megan was very different from her sister, not less because she didn't have great grades and she wore black clothing and dark makeup. Megan had her own gifts and talents that Ellie could never acquire. God has unique plans for each of us.

But most of all, my thought through this book was that God is with us in our messes and darkest hours. He can mold us and shape us, often better, when our worlds have turned upside down. When I've been in the darkest of places, that's when I found God in such an overt way, as air in my lungs and a true light for my soul. When our lives fall apart, that's the time to seek God as never before -- and that's the best opportunity to discover God in new and amazing ways. This is also when God seems more able to guide our lives toward something beyond our plans and imagination. Ephesians 3:20, "Now glory to God! By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare ask or hope."

This article is part of BreakPoint's Teen Fiction Week.

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