Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Valerie’s newest book, “Missing Isaac.” Winner will be announced in the next Author Spotlight feature. Congratulations to Sarah Ortiz for winning Lynette Eason’s book, “Oath of Honor.” Please email my assistant christenkrumm {at} gmail {dot} com to claim your prize. 

Author Spotlight Valerie Luesse

Valerie Fraser Luesse, senior travel editor for Southern Living magazine, brings her love and knowledge of the South to this stunning debut novel, Missing Isaac.

Set in rural Alabama in the 1960s, Missing Isaac tells the captivating story of a black field hand, Isaac Reynolds, who goes missing from the tiny, unassuming town of Glory, Alabama. The townspeople’s reactions range from concern to indifference. But one boy will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his friend.

White, wealthy, and fatherless, young Pete McLean has nothing to gain and everything to lose in his relentless search for Isaac. Before it’s all over, Pete and the people he loves most will discover more than they bargained for—including unexpected love and difficult truths about race and class.

Valerie Fraser LuesseCan you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Alabama, where four generations of my mother’s family have raised cotton in the same county. Daddy retired from a mill and has always loved to hunt and fish. I’m an only child, but I grew up with huge extended families on both sides, so what I lack in brothers and sisters, I make up for in cousins! I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write, and I’m blessed to have grown up in a time and place where we entertained ourselves by telling stories. My grandmother’s front porch during any family gathering was a gold mine. As far as formal training, I did my undergrad at Auburn and earned my master’s degree at Baylor—both degrees in English.

Do you have a day job as well? If so, what is it?

Yes, I’m the senior travel editor at Southern Living. I love the magazine, and I love the way Southern people feel connected to it. My job has given me the opportunity to travel all over the South and discover all kinds of interesting settings for stories, from Acadian Louisiana to the Outer Banks.

When did you start writing your first book?

During one of lowest, unhappiest times of my entire life. Around 2008 or 2009, when the recession was first sinking in, the magazine business got hit really hard. People were being laid off in droves, and there was so much stress and uncertainty. I needed a creative and emotional escape hatch. So I dusted off a short story I had been batting around for years and years—and then I just started typing—at a secretary desk in our guest room, with my cat sleeping in a chair nearby and my husband sleeping in our bedroom nearby. Retreating into this story was really healing for me—it helped me get through a rough time.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did the genre choose you?

I didn’t even know what the genres were! I just have to tell the story I feel compelled to tell and trust that everything else will work itself out. For Missing Isaac, it just happened that the people I wanted to write about were people of faith, and the period I wanted to write about was historically significant—but that’s not why I chose the 1960s. I just think it’s fascinating and confusing, both of which worked well for my characters.

Does writing energize you or exhaust you?

I can’t wait to do it every day, so for me it’s energizing. The process of writing is what I enjoy—choosing a setting, a situation, and a couple of central characters and then turning them loose to see where they go. I don’t know what’s going to happen in my stories until it happens.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

Not really. I believe that we all have external distractions—real or imagined—that can challenge our confidence and get in the way. Most of the time, when I’m struggling with a story—and this happens to me more with magazine features than fiction writing—it’s either because I’ve attached myself to a subject that doesn’t suit me or because I’m afraid of something—that my editor won’t like it, that my family won’t like it, that I’m not up to the task for whatever reason. When that happens, I think it’s important to talk through your story with an editor or a friend that you trust. It can be hard to see the source of your own fears, and if you can’t see them, you can’t shut them down.

Do you create an outline before you begin? Do you have the end in mind, or do you just wait and see where the story takes you?

I’ve never been able to write by an outline. I know I’d be more efficient if I could, but outlines stifle me. I start with a time, place, and situation that fascinate me, and then I add one or two main characters that I believe in. After that, I just start typing, and additional characters introduce themselves.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 7.26.10 PMWhat kind of research do you do? How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Actually, my day job has given me tons of valuable story research. Whenever I’m assigned to a place—for example, the Mississippi Delta—I can’t plan my scouting trip until I’ve done pretty thorough background research. And then once I go, I talk to all kinds of people, who tell me about their home through a local’s eyes. So I have that wellspring to draw from. But then I do targeted research as I write. For example, if a character is doing something on “Saturday, March 22, 1845,” I’ll Google an 1845 calendar to make sure that date was actually a Saturday. Or I’ll check to see if something I mention in the story—like paper plates—was available at the time the story is set.

Are you part of a community of authors? If so, how has it helped you?

Nothing formal or organized, but I do have friends who are authors. And of course, many of my friends are magazine writers. They’re all great sounding boards, whether I need to know whether a character is believable or want their opinion about a conference or event I’m thinking of attending.

Valerie Fraser Luesse is an award-winning magazine writer best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently a senior travel editor. Her work has been anthologized in the audio collection Southern Voices and in A Glimpse of Heaven, an essay collection featuring works by C. S. Lewis, Randy Alcorn, John Wesley, and others. As a freelance writer and editor, she was the lead writer for Southern Living 50 Years: A Celebration of People, Places, and Culture. Specializing in stories about unique pockets of Southern culture, Luesse has published major pieces on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana’s Acadian Prairie, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her editorial section on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana won the 2009 Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society.

Luesse earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and her master’s degree in English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She grew up in Harpersville, Alabama, a rural community in Shelby County, and now lives in Birmingham.

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