I read a novel this summer about a group of people who have a hard time remembering their self worth: disabled people. Bonnie Leon, author of To Dance with Dolphins has graciously agreed to stop by and answer a few reader questions.
Please tell us a little bit about you. How long have you been writing fiction, and how did you get started in the business?
My husband, Greg, and I live in the Cascade foothills of Southern Oregon. We’ve been here for thirty-five years and love country living. It’s the place where we raised our kids.
I’ve always been a lover of stories and occasionally through the years I dabbled at writing. In late 1989, the dabbling changed to a compulsion to write and I filled legal pads with short stories, personal experiences and poems. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was having a good time.
In the spring of 1991 I attended my first writing conference. It was great fun. I read one of my short stories to a critique group, which was terrifying but oh so helpful. At the end of the day, one of the visiting authors approached me and encouraged me to continue writing, saying she thought I was talented and that I had a unique writing voice. I was on cloud nine when I set off for home, my mind filled with ideas about my future writing career.
A few weeks later, my plans crumbled when a van I was driving was hit by a logging truck that overturned on a corner. The van was left teetering on a bluff about sixty feet above a river. My daughter was with me that day. She was unhurt and we both knew God had intervened and saved our lives, though I was left with life-long injuries.
My life changed that day. I’d always been an active country gal who loved being a homemaker, mother, and wife. I was unable to return to work, care for my family, or even cook a meal. After many months of visiting doctors and rehabilitation, I was told by my neurologist that I would not get better, and I was in a pretty bad place. I plunged into what I call the dark days. I was just a shadow of the person I had been and felt as if I had nothing to contribute to my family, my community, or the world. I asked God to give me something to do, something that mattered.
His word to me was—write. I felt empty at first, but after a time the words began to flow again. A year after my accident I was offered a scholarship to a summer writing conference. I thought it must be a “God thing” so I attended the four day conference where I was given the tools to begin. One year following that conference I returned and presented my first novel, The Journey of Eleven Moons, to the acquisitions editor for Thomas Nelson Publishing. They loved it and bought the book that launched my career. The Journey of Eleven Moons released in 1994 and went straight to the best-sellers list. I’ve been writing ever since.
To Dance with Dolphins is your latest book, but it’s been a story in your mind for a long time. Can you explain how it came about and talk a little bit about the epic road trip you made for research?
The accident and the injuries I sustained were the beginning of a journey I’d never imagined for myself. And as I walked the path of chronic pain and ensuing disability I found many others like me, people living altered lives and struggling to find purpose and hope in the midst of their affliction. I wanted to help and encourage those who suffer and the people who stand with them. Fiction seemed a natural means and so I allowed my imagination to go to work. The story percolated in my mind for many months. I wrote down snatches of dialogue, character descriptions, and plot ideas, and soon realized a trip across the country was needed if I wanted to write the story my imagination had cooked up.
In October 2006 Greg and I set out. We drove from one coast to the other and back in three weeks—8,000 miles. I’ve never had so much fun.
With the research mostly completed, I was ready to write, but there were other projects in the works so the story waited. It sat on the shelf for many years, begging to be told. In hindsight I believe the passage of years was necessary if I wanted to create a story that was comprehensive. I had a lot to learn.
In 2014 I decided it was time and that no matter what else came up the tale would be told. I put all other projects aside and went to work—To Dance With Dolphins was the result. I’m thrilled with the story and love the characters. They seem like real people to me. Feedback from readers has been fabulous. And Romantic Times nominated it for the Reviewers Choice Award in the Inspirational Novel category. I am honored to be considered.
Congratulations on your nomination! It’s well deserved.
Your characters sure did have a lot of fun on this road trip. Which of their experiences did you have personally, and how did they impact the creation of this story?
My husband and I traveled every mile the characters did. It was a challenge for me and for my characters but we had a great time. I was overwhelmed by the immensity and beauty of our country. We drove from amazing, unique, and gorgeous place to another. There is no end to the remarkable sites in our country.
I can’t even begin to share all the immensely exceptional places we saw, but I’ll name a few. Greg and I loved our visit to Loretta Lynn’s childhood home. It is just as described in the book. And it was fun to spend time with her brother. We stopped in Nashville and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and stopped in at Tootsies, a famous Nashville honky tonk. It was exciting to be there. We also spent an afternoon on Shell Island in Florida where we went snorkeling and spotted some interesting sea creatures and watched dolphins play in the sea, though sadly we didn’t get to actually swim with them. The water was warm and crystal clear, and as we sat on a broad white beach beneath an azure blue sky I felt like I needed to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. We discovered why the Grand Canyon is a place everyone should visit—it’s truly spectacular. We dodged a few tornados all along our three week journey, but gratefully did not have any “up close and personal” experiences with any of them.
You’ve talked before about a car accident that left permanent back injuries. How has that impacted your ability to write, travel, and do all the other things you want to do?
I think God used the accident to plant me in front of a computer. I don’t think he caused the accident, but he uses all things for good and he knew there was a part of me that I’d set on a shelf—the creative writer needed time and a reason to write.
I have to admit that I didn’t go along with his plan without some kicking and screaming. I once loved to garden, ride horses, hike mountain trails, and even split fire wood. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t miss the things I’ve had to leave behind, but I trust the Lord who has greater vision than I.
The first two years after the accident I spent most of my time propped up on pillows on our sofa, but over time I improved beyond what the doctors had expected. I was able to sit at my desk and work for long hours and I loved attending and teaching at writing conferences and speaking for women’s groups. Travel has been a challenge, but this year my husband and I purchased our first RV and it wonderful to take the comfort of home with us. This summer I spent a lot of time out on the road, meeting with writing groups and with readers. We plan to make lots more trips to new places and even stop in at some we visited back in 2006. Shell Island is a must see on our list.
Here on my blog, we talk about what damages our perception of the high value God places on each person. Each of your characters felt less-than-valued because they had a disability. What ways has God shown you through your own life that you are valued and loved, despite the injury that still causes extreme back pain?
I’m harder on me than anyone else. I push myself, which can be a good thing but often it is not—I can end up physically hurt and frustrated. Not being able to do what I’d like is a constant frustration I battle. For me contentment can be elusive, but God hasn’t given up on the lesson … I’m getting better and finding more peace. I doubt I’ll ever completely settle into a peaceful place, but it’s all right. The desire means I still want to live a full life.
The early transition years were the hardest, when the new me could no longer do daily tasks and my children and husband had to take on the chores I had always done. My husband was a great help. He stepped in without complaint and through the years has been at my side. I can’t remember a single incident when he made me feel like I was less valuable. The opposite is true—he helped me see how valuable I am, just as I am. My children have been the same, always supportive and available to help. We’ve lived out what love looks like—that is an amazing gift.
Over time, I’ve discovered that my physical strength and abilities are not who I am. I’m so much more. The parts of me that really matter—my heart and spirit—were not taken by the accident. And being forced to lean on God I’ve learned he will never let me down. That has built character and strength. I am not fearless, but when I am afraid I know I’m not alone.
That’s so encouraging, Bonnie! Thank you for sharing your passion for writing and the work God has done in your heart.
Thank you, Lyneta, for including me on your blog. It’s a privilege to be able to share my story.
I’d like to address what I think is a misconception by some about To Dance With Dolphins. Although the story is about people who live with chronic emotional and physical illness, it is not depressing, but rather it is fun. Some of the characters are a little quirky but lovable and they seem like real people. Just as we do, they seek purpose in their lives. They’ve lost hope, but it is still waiting to be found if only they will continue to seek it. Their story may take readers places they’ve never been but I don’t think readers will mind taking the journey. When they’ve read the final page they will know more than they did when they began, and they will see that no matter how dark or scary life may be there is always hope, always joy and forevermore there is love.
Thank you so much for stopping by my blog, Bonnie. It’s been a treat to chat with you.
Do you have questions for Bonnie? Ask in the comments, and Bonnie will check back in to continue the conversation.