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Carolyn Astfalk lives in Hershey, Pennsylvania where the scent on the morning breeze carries either chocolate or manure depending on wind direction and atmospheric conditions. A cradle Catholic, Carolyn was raised mainly at church basement rummage sales and other parish-sponsored events. She worked her way up to "pup girl" at weekly Bingo and even served as a parish organist for several years. Having reached the apex of parish ministry, she moved to the state capital to advance her churchy career. Carolyn served as communications director and registered lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference for a decade, advocating for religious liberty; prolife, pro-family issues, Catholic education, and healthcare, among others. Since then, she has been a stay-at-home mom to her four children. Most days she can be found changing diapers, wiping up spills, folding laundry, and tapping furiously on her laptop.
1. Carolyn, can you give us a condensed summary of your book?
In Rightfully Ours, Paul Porter, accompanies his brother Sean to Pennsylvania where Sean will be working at a natural gas drilling well. Paul ends up boarding on the gas well property with the Mueller family. Rachel Muller is only a couple years younger than Paul (14 at the beginning of the book), and they form a deep friendship through grief, adventure, and shared experiences. As they search for what they think may be lost gold, their relationship deepens, and they have to grapple with the strong feelings they have for one another and the temptations that ensue. Ultimately, they have to affirm what they believe about love and sex and act on their convictions.
2. How do you incorporate Catholic elements into the story of Rightfully Ours?
The major and minor characters in Rightfully Ours are all Catholic, so their faith is worked into their daily lives: Catholic school, respect for the Lord’s name, prayers before meals, reciting the Rosary in moments of crisis, and taking to heart the truths that the Catholic Church upholds. My faith infuses my writing very naturally. Just as it is woven into my life, it becomes woven into my stories.
3. What inspired you to write this book?
The idea came from a newspaper clipping about a wagonload of gold said to be lost in Pennsylvania when the caravan taking it from West Virginia to the Philadelphia Mint was diverted north due to the Civil War battle in Gettysburg. When I decided to give National Novel Writing Month a shot in November of 2010, I started with that little article. Once I introduced a teen romance into the story, it ended up adding more layers of meaning and really bringing the treasure theme to the forefront.
4. Are experiences in the book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
While the experiences are completely fictional, the setting came out of my visits to the Williamsport, Pennsylvania area. My husband worked there for several weeks each year, and sometimes the kids and I would join him for a few days. I was struck by the changes in the area as Marcellus Shale drilling became more commonplace in the area.
5. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I hope that teens in particular will recognize the truth and beauty of human sexuality, and that chastity is a virtue that is necessary for all ages and stages of our lives. Jesus’s commands aren’t arbitrary rules made to deprive us of pleasure but rather for the benefit of not only individuals, but marriages, family, and by extension, all of society.
6. In a genre often filled with secular morals, what has it been like to write a romance story through a faith-centered lens?
Having read some secular Young Adult books, there’s a strong demarcation between them and ones written from a Christian perspective. Some of the secular books accept that homosexual relationships are normalized even among teens and that being sexually active outside of marriage is the normal course of life. There may be a nod to “being ready” for sex, but being in a permanent, committed relationship, i.e., marriage between one man and one woman, is seen as optional. Every writer brings their own worldview to the keyboard, so it’s natural for me to write through that faith-centered lens whether it’s romance, suspense, or something else.
7. What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological) in bringing your book to life?
Not much research was required for the book, but the biggest challenge in writing Rightfully Ours was that it was my first attempt at writing a novel. While I’d done plenty of nonfiction writing, I’d done very, very little fiction writing and nothing that even approached the length of a novel. The book took about six and a half years between first draft and publication, during which time I had a lot to learn about the craft of writing and the perseverance required to complete a project on the scale of a complete novel.
8. What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
Criticism is hard to get used to, especially when you’ve poured so much of yourself into a project. The toughest criticism I’ve received came from a Christian book blogger to whom I’d sent a review copy of Stay With Me. She termed it “ disgusting and very distasteful.” The review would lead you to believe the book contained explicit sex scenes and profanity, which is does not. The best compliment probably wasn’t intended as such, but it was the most edifying remark. A non-Catholic woman told me that Stay With Me had convinced her of something she’d begun to believe - that contraception has no place in marriage. Honestly, as hard as criticism can be, if no one liked another word I wrote but God used that “disgusting and very distasteful” book to nudge one person to be open to life, I'm satisfied.
9. What books/authors have influenced your writing?
The first novel that really grabbed and held me, prompting me to re-read it several times, was Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, so I expect that had a big influence. I’ve been trying to read more classics that I’ve “missed” along the way, and I admire the writing of Willa Cather. More recently, I’ve been influenced by many contemporary Christian and Catholic fiction authors, including those whom I’m privileged to know, especially those I read before writing myself: Regina Doman, Ellen Gable, and my critique partner of late, Theresa Linden.
10. What do you think makes a good story?
I think two things make or break a story: plot and characters. Do a great job on one and most of the time you can get by with a passable job on the other. Get them both right, and you’ve got a great book. I think most writers tend to do one better than the other, so there’s always something to work on and improve.