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Interview: February 8, 2018

Over the years, Francine Rivers has penned a number of bestselling novels ranging from inspirational to historical romance, most of which focus on Christianity or faith-based themes. In this interview conducted by's Amy Haddock, Rivers discusses how those themes play into her latest book, THE MASTERPIECE, the story of Roman and Grace, two orphans who couldn’t have grown up more differently. Read on to discover Rivers' thoughts on writing these characters, emotional and spiritual healing, and personal inspirations that drove the tale forward. While Roman and Grace have similar starting points --- volatile home situations that make them orphans --- their paths diverge sharply from there. Grace is firmly rooted in a nice, middle-class neighborhood, but receives only perfunctory affection from distant Aunt Elizabeth. Roman, on the other hand, is always on the run, being passed from foster home to foster home until landing at Masterson Ranch only to discover an unconventional family who extends real love to the “lost boy.” How did you get inside the minds of these characters? Which character from the book did you most identify with as you told their story? Why?

Francine Rivers: Since becoming involved with a ministry helping sex-trafficked victims, those struggling with addictions, and women who have fled abusive relationships, I’ve heard and seen how hard it is to overcome the past. I’ve met many people who have come from appallingly difficult family situations. In some cases, I am amazed they survived at all. When children are abused, used or abandoned by the people who should love and protect them (parents), those experiences twist their view of God as our Father. Ultimately, they still must make the decision to believe and follow Jesus. There is no “get out of hell free” card for anyone. The journey is harder for some, the choice and walk of faith more difficult.

Added to people who have shared their life stories with me, I read books about childhood trauma. Roman and Grace began to develop in my mind, but I wanted to be sure I was accurately portraying their mental, emotional and spiritual state. A friend who is a trained and licensed family counselor suggested I talk with a group of therapists that meets every week. I presented my characters as case studies and asked if I was close to what real adult life would be. One gentleman cried over Roman. He had worked with young men just like him. In fact, everyone in the room had personal experience working with men and women who had come from pasts similar to my characters.

I identified easily with Susan Masterson. I have seen the anguish and agonies of broken people. I’ve felt helpless and useless at times. You can offer love, but it’s not always accepted. I’ve met many who have suffered at the hands of others and continue to suffer because they cling to the past, resist and are suspect of the mercy and love of God. I’ve also seen miracles when people surrender all to Jesus. I’ve seen lives once filled with darkness shine the light of our Father for others to see. It is people like Roman and Grace who come to Christ and can then be heard by others because they have lived that pain. People who had no hope come to Christ and then offer hope to others. It is amazing to see.

BRC: Life sometimes seems unfair in its cruelty to children who are at the mercy of adults who do not have their best interests at heart. What aspects of Roman’s and Grace’s journeys do you think helped them eventually live a different life than becoming victims of “the hand they were dealt” by their parents? What would you say to those readers who might be at the beginning or in the middle of their story of healing?

FR: I met a young woman who had been trafficked, and she spoke of how the path to healing came from seeing herself not as a victim, but as a survivor. I had that view from the beginning of the story. I didn’t want Roman or Grace wailing over or wallowing in the past. People who label themselves as victims never seem to become victors. True healing and victory come through Christ and carry with it eternal blessings.

For Grace, it was the visitation of an angel that sets her on a course of faith. But we are all imperfect people, and when she seeks love from the wrong person, she suffers the consequences. Even when we come to Christ, we still stumble in our sin nature. Unlike many, Grace resolves not to make the same mistake again. She seeks God more intently and doesn’t make decisions by herself, especially when she fears repeating a pattern. Roman is an attractive, charismatic man. She doesn’t want to be drawn into another unequally yoked relationship. She is very intentional about the way she lives, very cautious.

Roman, on the other hand, never had any faith training. He’s been on his own all his life. Even while at the Masterson Ranch, there was no spiritual training. Everything in his life is focused on what he can do for himself. Anyone who has ever lived their life this way knows how emptiness feels. Yet we live in a culture that promotes self. Self-reliance, self-centered, self-esteem, self-made. Jesus esteemed us enough that He was willing to die to save us. It takes a great deal to turn some people away from believing they can be good and open their eyes to the reality and sovereignty of God. And, in truth, we all have to die to self to be reborn in Christ.

BRC: The nonlinear flashbacks throughout the book were compelling and captured Grace and Roman at different pivotal moments during their lives. What made you decide on this storytelling format? Did you write the modern-day story first and then intersperse the insights into the younger characters? Or did you start with the younger characters?

FR: I work with two excellent editors, Karen Watson and Kathy Olson. Karen asks questions, and questions always get my creative juices flowing. Kathy has an eye for where things need to be and how to get them there. I wrote Roman’s and Grace’s stories in a linear structure, not once, but twice, with all the trauma and anguish of their childhood experiences at the beginning. The story was heavy with sorrow and anger. I’d been close to my research and feeling everything. We brainstormed ways to bring more light into the darkness. Karen and Kathy suggested taking the scenes of Roman’s and Grace’s childhood experiences and alternating with present day. I thought it was a brilliant idea. Kathy plucked scenes and dropped them in strategic places. I had done this in a previous book, THE SCARLET THREAD. And it worked well with this one.

Good editors are invaluable, and I’ve been fortunate to work with two of the best for years. I’m still an apprentice, and I always will be. It’s essential to listen to an editor. They are the first readers. What needs to be added, changed or removed to bring the story more life and give more value to the reader? We all have the same goal: to make the book the best it can be.

BRC: Roman enters Masterson Ranch a thrill-seeking graffiti artist, rough around the edges, but his teacher Jasper sees beyond his tough exterior and encourages him to pursue his passion, introducing him to all types of art and artists. Have you had a Jasper in your life? If so, how did he or she inspire you?

FR: My mother always encouraged me to follow my dream. She was a devoted journal writer. From early childhood, I would see her sit at her desk every day and write in her journal. After she died, I found an old manuscript among her things, chapters held together by rusty paper clips. It gave me a deeper understanding of why she didn’t tell me to major in something more practical than English with an emphasis in creative writing in college.

Another Jasper in my life was one of my college professors, Walter van Tilburg Clark. He was a successful novelist, well-known for THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, a Western classic. I had to write a story to get into his class, and there were fewer than 10 students. He spent time reviewing and discussing my work, and he encouraged me to pursue writing. I still have one short story, the word count less than the notes he wrote on the back. Suggestions, instructions, encouragement.

I’ve had many people encouraging me over the years: family, friends, readers. Jaspers play an important part in people’s lives. Like Barnabas, friend to the apostle Paul and John Mark, a bridge builder in relationships. When life --- and writing --- becomes so difficult I wonder why I ever thought I could be a writer at all, the Jaspers remind me I go through this phase with every project.

BRC: After Grace’s failed marriage to a man who made everything her fault and overlooked his own major failings, Grace is wary around Roman but is even less trusting of herself. What do you think it is about this kind of shame that can haunt us and cripple us from moving forward?

FR: If I may be blunt, men and women view sex differently. I read one study that said men turn away after having sex, while a woman turns toward the man and wants to be closer. Men can enjoy sex without feeling bound in any way. Sex is a powerful bonding experience for a woman. For Patrick, Grace’s ex-husband, sex was a tool. He knew if he succeeded in seducing her, she would marry (and take care of) him.

When Grace meets Roman, she recognizes him as a player --- a man who wants sex, but not a relationship. He’s open about it. He has rules. He only has sex with women who know there is no promise of a future, no intention of any more than a one-night stand. The crass term used these days is hooking up. Sex with a stranger or an acquaintance. I’ve read numerous articles on how the practice leaves both girls and boys and men and women feeling empty. Like Roman. God created us to long for relationship, and sex is meant to be shared within the bonds of marriage. Anything less leaves wounds and scars.

When we defy the essence of who we are as human beings created by and in God’s image, we are haunted by our behavior and the consequences we wish we could deny.

There is a great deal of sexual language in the Bible. When God speaks about His love for us, He compares it to a husband for his wife. Our culture has turned sex into an idol, and the way we worship it makes it cheap and meaningless. Roman feels that emptiness and longs for the real thing. God is a passionate lover, jealous of us. He doesn’t want us spreading “love” around to idols.

BRC: The catalysts to belief in God in this book were very tangible; angels and hell were graphically displayed and God’s voice seemed physically audible, especially to Grace. What inspired you to write these scenes? Did you draw from personal experience?

FR: I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I “hear” Him speak to me in Scripture all the time. The first time I read THE ONE YEAR BIBLE, I could hear (in my heart) the voice of God throughout the daily reading. The Old and New Testaments, Psalms and Proverbs often spoke of the same issues. It amazed me.

I wanted a scene in hell in the story because too many people, including Christians, mistakenly think Jesus came to enhance our lives, not save us from an eternity in hell. Most people these days don’t believe there is a hell. They mistakenly think we will all go to heaven. We’ll be magically transformed into perfect beings destined to live out all eternity in some blissful place doing whatever we want to do. Then you ask about a Charles Manson or an Adolf Hitler or a Stalin, and they say no. But if everyone is transformed...? Books come out regularly promoting the idea that there is only light at the end of the tunnel of life, only sweet endings. It all sounds so good, but it’s a lie from the pit.

Jesus came to save us from hell and be the bridge to an everlasting relationship with our Father in heaven. He talked about hell. He spoke of it as a real place of weeping, gnashing of teeth, and a fiery furnace. Scripture tells us of Satan’s fall and a third of heaven’s angels going with him. He is the prince of this world. There is a spiritual realm, and our minds are the battleground.

The truth is what we believe determines where we spend eternity. And if we don’t make a decision, that in itself is a decision that will send us to hell. Jesus made it possible for us to return to the relationship God intended and Adam rejected. We inherited that self-centered sin nature. The world screams that we can be like God --- in control of our lives. But it’s a lie. There is only One who can keep us out of hell, and that is Jesus Christ.

BRC: Often, we are quick to judge or just plain don’t know how to act towards people who are different from us, but the secondary characters (Jasper, Shanice, Brian and more) in this book are able to break through Roman’s and Grace’s constructed walls. What do you think are the best qualities of a good friend?

FR: Shared faith in Jesus. Transparency. A willingness to share their lives. Someone who is trustworthy and keeps a confidence. Someone who isn’t afraid to tell the truth, especially if their friend is stumbling or stepping off the path. When they find it necessary to confront, they do so with love, not judgment. A friendship with these attributes lasts a lifetime.

BRC: Setting the book in California is an amazingly textured backdrop --- the edgy inner city, Roman’s beach home, the nature along the Pacific coast, the rustic Masterson ranch, and the mellow suburbia of Fresno and Merced. And each setting seems to bring out a different side of the characters. What do you think it is about a place that brings out different aspects of who we are?

FR: I’m a native Californian, born in Berkeley. All the places in THE MASTERPIECE have personal meaning to me. Rick and I lived in a one-room flat in Santa Ana when we were first married. We used to drive out to Laguna Beach on weekends. We lived for five years in inner-city Oakland, three blocks from the Hells Angels’ headquarters. We often drove across the Bay to San Francisco, a city we both love. Rick’s parents lived in Jenner by the Sea, overlooking the mouth of the Russian River and Pacific Ocean. Rick and I have driven the coast highway from Southern California north and beyond Fort Bragg several times. His aunt and uncle lived in the Gold Country. The family had a cabin in the high Sierras. We’ve hiked in Yosemite, driven over Tioga Pass, and explored Bodie. My cousin and one of my college roommates live in Fresno, and my aunt Margaret lived in Merced. It’s her home I describe in the book. Writing the story of Roman and Grace allowed me pleasurable hours to revisit special places in my life.

BRC: There are many themes in the book: finding belonging, learning from past mistakes, tearing walls down, discovering true purpose, to name a few. If a reader was left with only one thought after reading this book, what would you want that to be? If you had to describe the book with one word or phrase, what would you use?

FR: You are God’s masterpiece. Ephesians 2:10.

BRC: Roman’s artistry takes center stage in the book --- he seemingly can do it all, from tagging buildings to high-end commercial pieces. Were you a fan of art before writing THE MASTERPIECE, or did you come to the medium as you wrote Roman’s story? If you were to create your own gallery of art, which artists would grace the walls?

FR: I like all kinds of art, even (some) graffiti. It can be beautiful and meaningful. We have collected all kinds of art over the years. My favorite piece is a signed print of Jesus praying by Morgan Weistling. It hangs on the wall in my office, above my workstation. I look at it every day and remember He is the reason I write.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

FR: I wrote a movie script for REDEEMING LOVE and am now working on a revision. We have a contract signed and an option in place for a movie, with hope the project will move toward production. When, we don’t know. That is up to the Lord.