In Grace Grows, Grace Barnum thinks she has it all together until she meets Tyler Wilkie, a sexy singer-songwriter with his heart on his sleeve. His passion and adventurousness both challenge and irritate Grace, who in spite of herself cannot resist their connection. The result is a wonderfully slow-burning and satisfying love story of two souls transformed.
In a Q&A with BookPage, debut author Shelle Sumners talks about the process of “growing” her characters and shares her thoughts on the original soundtrack to Grace Grows, recorded by her husband.
Grace Grows is about a play-by-the-rules woman named Grace Barnum who falls in love with Tyler Wilkie, a sexy singer-songwriter who, let’s face it, is somewhat less than responsible. How did you use this point of friction to strengthen the connection between Grace and Tyler?
There were important things that Grace and Ty could learn from each other. When the story starts, they are at rather extreme ends of the careful/responsible versus careless/irresponsible spectrum. Eventually, they each approach the center and even cross that imaginary line into the other’s customary way of being. Grace becomes more spontaneous, and Ty becomes more careful. This growth and change they go through was fun to write.
Tyler Wilkie’s songs, written by your husband Lee Morgan, are an integral part of the book, tracking Ty’s growing feelings for Grace. How was the collaboration experience with your husband?
So easy! I am truly his biggest fan; he writes amazing songs that I never get tired of hearing. I remember perfectly the moment our collaboration began. I was sitting at my computer, chipping away at this fledgling story about a singer-songwriter, and I heard Lee in another room practicing; playing guitar and singing. Light bulb! I yelled across the house, “Hey, Lee! Can I try putting one of your songs in this story?” and he yelled back, “Okay!” He had no idea what he was getting himself into. He’s trusting like that.
What do you think the album, which can be downloaded as a complement to the book, adds to the experience of reading Grace Grows?
The songs enhance the emotions in the story, make them more visceral. First you have this lovely, black-and-white lyric poetry on the page about attraction, intuition, tenderness, lust, devotion. Then, when you hear it brought to musical life, powerfully sung and infused with emotion, the love in the story becomes Technicolor. When I was writing, it was exciting to imagine Grace hearing these songs, imagine how they would disarm and change her. Who wouldn’t come absolutely undone after hearing the song “Her” for the first time and realizing it’s about you?
OK, we have to ask: Like Grace, you have been an educational writer and your husband is a singer-songwriter. How much of this story is inspired by your own experiences?
I expect that I will be asked this question a lot. Amy Sue Nathan, my fellow St. Martin’s Press author, addressed the “Is this story about you?” question on her Women’s Fiction Writers blog last year. Her answer was: “Truth is a springboard for fiction.” That’s exactly it! I did place this story in worlds I have some familiarity with—textbook publishing and New York clubs that feature live music—and I do know a few things about sexuality education and Broadway theater people. But for the most part, I invented Grace and Ty and their families, friends and situations, and expanded on my creation with a lot of research.
Having said all that, there is a rather strict grammarian, similar to Grace, in my family. And that person is not me. Lee grew up with an English professor dad, and let me tell you, I know exactly how Ty feels when Grace spontaneously corrects his transitive verb usage.
Grace’s troubled relationship with her parents informed her love life, and as a result her relationship with her mother and father transformed as Grace grew (as the title so aptly states) in her romantic relationship. How did you balance the two relationship storylines to create a character that comes to peace with her present as she begins to understand her past?
It became clear as I wrote the story that Grace was deeply mired in some tragically mistaken ideas about life. And she had to become unstuck. So I needed to figure out why this had happened to her and how she could be set free. As I pondered these questions about Grace, her relationships with Julia, Dan and Ty all crystallized, and I understood what needed to happen with each of them for Grace to reach understanding and peace.
Amazingly, this is your first novel. How was the experience of writing a novel different than other writing you have done in the past? What was your favorite aspect of writing a novel?
I started out writing screenplays, but I knew that eventually I would write a novel. I put it off for a long time, because it was going to require so much more work and patience. In a screenplay, you can lightly sketch the visuals and settings and focus mostly on developing your plot, characters and dialogue. In a novel, you have to create a much more nuanced and detailed overall experience for the reader.
Grace Grows is actually the second novel I’ve written, and it was experimental for me in several ways: writing in the first-person, writing humorously and including a narrative thread of songs in the story. My favorite thing about this novel was that I simply loved Grace and Ty. I cared about them so much, it was a pleasure to be with them and watch their story unfold.
What inspires you?
My daughter has been a huge inspiration, first in her very existence—you can’t ever stop making your best effort, when you have this new, precious person depending on you—and also in her natural optimism, kindness and capability. She’s a senior in high school this year and her dad and I can hardly believe it. We’ve been having so much fun raising her that the years have just melted away.
What are you working on next?
I have gone back to that first novel I wrote. I had just finished the first draft of it when I was taken over by Grace and Ty. So it’s interesting to return to that story now, because it’s very different than Grace Grows, sort of a Southern gothic family drama with mystical elements. Also, while I was writing Grace Grows I started having ideas for a book about Ty’s sister, Beck. So I have a “spin-off” novel in progress about her. Grace and Ty are in that story as well, but as secondary characters.