Lori Benton is the author of Burning Sky: A Novel of the American Frontier.
Lori, welcome to Overcoming With God. We appreciate your willingness to share your testimony of overcoming with our readers.
Thank you for having me. I love to tell this story.
Would you tell us about the most difficult thing in your life you have had to overcome, with God’s help? (transparency appreciated!)
I’d be happy to, but first a little background to tie this into Burning Sky: one of the major themes of the story is the journey of redefining who one is after a great loss. Many of the characters in Burning Sky are on that journey but one of them, Neil MacGregor—the Scottish botanist and physician aided by my main character, Willa Obenchain—has a journey that in some respects mirrors my own.
Neil MacGregor is a character I first created years ago as the hero of a story different in genre, setting, and century from the one he now inhabits. While the losses the character suffered in that early manuscript are similar to what they are now—due to a debilitating injury—the way in which Neil dealt with them was vastly different. The reason for that, and why I never finished that original story, is very personal.
Halfway through writing it, in 1999, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. Months of chemotherapy and radiation eradicated the cancer, and I’ve been in remission for 14 years. My side effects were mild, except for one, and I didn’t even realize I was suffering from it until the treatment was over, my hair was growing back, and I was ready to get back to writing. It’s called chemo fog, and I was blind-sided by it. After months of frustrated attempts, I reached the dispiriting conclusion that I was no longer able to write the type of novels I’d been creating for nearly ten years before my diagnosis.
Some of the symptoms of chemo fog: anything resembling concentration was beyond me; my memory for things like plot threads and character arcs was almost nonexistent; I couldn’t retain anything I read by way of research (and my novels have always been heavily research-dependent). I couldn’t make any headway with the story.
A vital part of my identity was lost. For all I knew, it was lost forever.
But God was doing a work in me, a long-term work of submission and trust, of giving my heart’s desire to write—at least the types of books I wanted to write—as well as my healing, completely into His hands. For long stretches of time I ceased even to try to write. I read. I did other creative things that were less demanding. But the desire to write never died. I continued to pray, and to wait. It would be nearly five years before the fog lifted enough for me to feel ready to tackle the mountain climb that is novel-writing. And there, waiting for me at the base of the trail, was the character of Neil MacGregor. I knew I had to find him a story to inhabit. Eventually I set him down in 1784 on the New York frontier, and that’s when I discovered that somewhere in that mysterious alchemy of story-weaving that often goes on subconsciously, Neil had grown in the face of his losses in the same way I had. God hadn’t taken away his heart’s desire to be a botanist, even as He didn’t take away my passion to write during those foggy years when the ability to do so just wasn’t there. Even though Neil is well aware of the challenges that stand between him and his goals, he possesses a faith that’s been refined through loss, and a subsequent submission to God’s will.
Neil steps out to seize the desire God placed in his heart, even as I stepped out in faith back in 2004 and returned not only to writing, but gave myself an unofficial degree in 18th century history as well. I took baby steps at first, but month by month, year by year, God has enabled me to keep going, one word, one story, at a time.
Disability friendliness: Is this latest release available in audio format or do you have any other works available on audio? Do your e-books have audio capability? Do you have any in large print?
I’m a huge fan of audio books, so I hope one day Burning Sky will be available in audio, though my publisher, WaterBrook Press, has no current plans for that. But I’m happy to announce that Burning Sky will be available in large print format this fall from Thorndike Press.
In this latest work, do you have any topics useful for bibliotherapy, or therapeutic influence through reading about a disorder or situation?
There are two characters in Burning Sky with obvious disabilities. One of these is Neil MacGregor. Neil’s disability would have been diagnosed as Dyslexia today. As a physician, botanist, well-schooled and well-read for his day, being unable to read is a huge blow to him professionally as well as personally. But as the story of Burning Sky unfolds, Neil’s journey takes him farther down the path of trusting God to be strong in his weakness, unlike Willa Obenchain, who is attempting to isolate herself in fear of further loss, grief, or failure. But through Neil MacGregor, God is poised to demonstrate to Willa what true courage looks like.
Another character whose life would be vastly different had he been born in recent decades is a secondary character, Francis Waring. No doubt someone today would place him on the Autism Spectrum. Since this story is set in 1784, I simply presented Francis as truthfully as I could, and left it to the reader to diagnose him. And, I hope, cheer him on as he travels his own journey toward overcoming the limitations this challenge (and other characters) have placed on him.
Burning Sky also deals with the issues of grief, loss, and recovery—recovery after war trauma, after the death of loved ones, loss of home, loss of identity. Willa Obenchain describes herself at the start of the book as, “the place where two rivers meet, silted with upheaval and loss.” She’s lost two families, two lives, two homes, and at first isn’t even sure she has the strength or will to go on living. But God has plans for Willa, and knows exactly what’s needed to stir up the coals of her spirit, her determination, her compassion. Burning Sky is the journey of Willa’s learning to trust that though for the present there may be pain, God has her ultimate good at the center of His heart, will, and plans for her.
Lori’s mini bio:
Lori Benton was born and raised east of the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by early American and family history going back to the 1600s. Her novels transport readers to the 18th century, where she brings to life the Colonial and early Federal periods of American history, creating a melting pot of characters drawn from both sides of a turbulent and shifting frontier, brought together in the bonds of God's transforming grace.
When she isn’t writing, reading, or researching 18th century history, Lori enjoys exploring the mountains with her husband – often scouring the brush for huckleberries, which overflow the freezer and find their way into her signature huckleberry lemon pound cake.
Thank you, Lori Benton, for agreeing to answer these questions. Have a blessed day and keep on writing!!
My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. I hope readers will be blessed by Burning Sky.
GIVEAWAY: Paperback or ebook copy of the novel (ebook only for intenational winners.) "Like" Lori's FB page and put LB on your comment!