Q&A: Lisa Wingate (The Prayer Box)
Lisa Wingate’s new book The Prayer Box (Tyndale House) follows the story of a troubled young mother, Tandi, and her relationship with an elderly woman, Iola. While caring for Iola, Tandi discovers 81 prayer boxes that span Iola’s life. What’s inside those boxes will transform her forever—teaching her something about grace and redemption.
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THIS NOVEL--TWO CHARACTERS IN DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT STAGES OF THEIR LIVES, CONNECTING ON A VERY DEEP LEVEL?
The Prayer Box is a book that came to be completely by accident… if you believe in accidents. I prefer to think that it was divine intervention. It was an idea that literally gob-smacked me out of the blue one day as I was sketching out some short book ideas at a publisher’s request. I looked across the room and saw a prayer box that had been given to me at a speaking event, and thought, What if the prayers of a person's entire lifetime were recorded in prayer boxes? What would you learn if you opened those boxes, and how might it change you?
The concept came almost fully formed. I knew it would be a story about a young woman whose life is in ruins, and that she’d end up being given the job of cleaning out an old house that’s also crumbling. I knew that inside the house she’d find eighty-one carefully decorated prayer boxes that are basically the chronicle of the life of the woman who owned the home. They would literally contain the story of a lifetime.
I had originally set the book on the Texas coast. I imagined that the lessons in the prayer boxes would slowly awaken the main character from the dead sleep of a failed life, redeem parts of her that had been lost. I knew that the story would be set in a small seaside community that was struggling to recover from a hurricane, and that the main character would be an outsider who comes there seeking refuge. I knew that there would be connections between the life of the woman who created the prayer boxes and filled them with letters, and the life of the woman who finds the boxes.
What I didn’t know was that a longtime reader-friend of mine, Ed Stevens (whose personal history inspired my earlier novel, Dandelion Summer), would suggest that the Outer Banks of North Carolina needed some attention after hurricane Irene, and that I should set a book there. At first I just filed the information away with my “someday” ideas, but Ed was determined. Not too long after that, he offered my research crew and me a stay in his daughter’s beach house in Duck, NC, which was all the convincing I needed. Setting The Prayer Box in the Outer Banks added a wonderful new dimension to the book. The Outer Banks became a character in itself. It’s an area rife with history and legend and the setting enriched the story in ways I could never have anticipated.
TANDI HAS A TROUBLED PAST. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HER?
Tandi is a young woman with a difficult and dangerous history. Like so many women who've grown up in chaotic and frightening family situations, she has unwittingly repeated many of the family patterns with which she was raised. She has created a toxic environment for herself, thirteen-year-old Zoey, and nine-year-old J.T. Tandi's lack of self worth and the absence of support systems have led her to make poor relationship decisions -- to validate herself based on who she's dating. She has no concept of herself as valuable to the world or to God. She loves her children, but has no idea how to raise them. Hatteras Island, where she spent time with her grandparents as a child, is one of the few places she has felt safe in her life, so it is the place she runs to when she flees an abusive marriage to a controlling older man and an addiction to prescription painkillers. The rental cottage behind Iola Anne Poole's decaying Victorian house is a hiding place, but it quickly becomes a refuge and a place of incredible growth.
WHAT IS THE RECURRING THEME THROUGHOUT THIS NOVEL?
The recurring theme in The Prayer Box is grace, what it is, how it changes lives, how we discover it, accept it, and pour it out to one another. In terms of the story, the work of grace is shown through the contrasting ways Iola and Tandi have chosen to react to the circumstances in their lives. Both women come from difficult pasts. Both have suffered at the hands of cruel and unscrupulous people. Both have been rejected and hurt and wounded. Both are outcasts.
Iola has chosen not to accept the painful labels people have assigned to her, but instead to accept only God's label for her, Beloved. Tandi, on the other hand, has no concept of herself as a child of God or a person of intrinsic worth. She has allowed the people around her to sculpt every part of her, to determine her identity, to cause her to lack faith. What she has to learn in the story is that she is beloved and that she can claim that, internalize it and build a good life, a life that matters. She has to learn that she can't keep going through life letting people walk off with pieces of her that belong to her and to God.
WHAT DO YOU THINK READERS WILL ENJOY THE MOST ABOUT THIS BOOK?
I think readers will enjoy watching Tandi grow into a woman of purpose, become whole, cast aside the destructive family patterns, and finally provide a good life for her children. But more than that, I think readers will enjoy meeting Iola Anne Poole and spending time in the place she loved, Hatteras Island. It's an amazing area. There's so much history on those islands -- lighthouses, and shipwrecks, and pirate legends, and incredible natural beauty. Of the Outer Banks, Iola says in her letters to God, "You have brought me one step short of heaven." Sitting at the edge of earth and sea on Hatteras, it's easy to feel that way. Iola's appreciation for the islands and her determination to save them was one of the things I loved about her. She's a remarkable individual, a woman limited by the times in which she lived, yet courageous in doing what she could for the people around her and the islands. She's a quiet servant, not the sort to seek attention or require accolades. Her work is hers and God's, as are her struggles and her triumphs... until Tandi discovers them.
PRAYER BOXES ARE NOT SOMETHING YOU HEAR ABOUT OR SEE EVERY DAY. CAN YOU TELL US EXACTLY WHAT A PRAYER BOX IS?
Prayer boxes have a long tradition in Jewish history and among early Christians, but other than occasional use or use as a novelty gift, they aren’t used that much in modern Christianity. Honestly, that’s a loss. A prayer box is like a prayer journal, but it’s more flexible and low-pressure. Any scrap of paper you run across any time of the day will do, and you can drop it in your prayer box whenever you have the chance. Closing the lid is symbolic of giving it over to God and letting it go.
Prayer boxing and the idea of taking the time to record our prayers, hopes, and gratitudes in writing (as Iola did in the book) is so very valuable. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when a child graduates, to be able to give that child the box of hopes and prayers written by parents and grandparents during the first year of life? Or for a couple on their 25th anniversary to re-open the box from their first year of marriage? For years, I’ve given journals or prayer boxes to couples as wedding gifts and encouraged them to write down their hopes and gratitudes during their first year of life, then keep them. It’s a great exercise while they’re doing it and a precious keepsake for later. It’s also their story, preserved.
I hope that readers, among other things, will see prayer boxes in a new way after reading the book. The 81 boxes discovered in Iola’s house are the story of her unsung life. There is, in the end, nothing more true to who we are than what we pray for.
YOU ALSO WROTE AN ESHORT PRELUDE TO THIS BOOK--WHERE DOES THE PRELUDE PICK UP THE STORY?
The Sea Glass Sisters is a stand-alone story of mothers, daughters, sisters, and the perfect storm. It's also an introduction to Hatteras Island and the (fictional) community of Fairhope, where The Prayer Box is set. At Sandy's Seashell Shop, a little place that makes a big difference in the life of Tandi in The Prayer Box, hurricane preparations are underway, but back home in Michigan, Sandy's family is determined to convince her to retire, sell her little seaside store, and move back home to the family fold. No one moves Seashell Sandy anywhere she doesn't want to go. Sandy is just the sort of force-of-nature person who's typically found at the center of a strong tribe of women, andthe Sisterhood of the Seashell Shop is determined to weather this storm on Hatteras, just as they've weathered all the storms before.