by Justine Johnston Hemmestad
Kristy Cambron is a vintage-inspired storyteller writing from the space where art, history, and faith intersect. She’s a Christy Award-winning author of historical fiction, including her bestselling novels, The Butterfly and the Violin and The Paris Dressmaker, and nonfiction, including the Verse Mapping Series of Bibles and Bible studies. She also serves as a literary agent with Gardner Literary.
Her work has been named to Cosmopolitan’s Best Historical Fiction Novels of 2021, Publishers Weekly Religion & Spirituality TOP 10, Library Journal Reviews’ Best Books, RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, INSPY Award nominations, and received a 2020 Christy Award for her novel, The Painted Castle.
In a heart-to-heart conversation with Justine Johnston Hemmestad, Kristy Cambron discusses her books, career, and beyond.
Your website describes you as vintage-inspired storyteller writing from the space where art, history, and faith intersect. What led to this unique amalgamation in your life?
K: My earliest memory of falling in love with stories is from the aisles of a library. My mom used to take my sister and me there every summer in my youth. While my sister ran to the fiction section… I went the other way and ended up in the art aisles. I remember sitting on the floor and thumbing through thick volumes of art history and Disney animation books, completely spellbound with visual storytelling and yet having no idea then that God was cultivating my future.
You hold a degree in Art History/Research Writing and spent fifteen years in education and leadership development. Do either of these paths inform the concepts for your stories, as well as the storylines themselves?
K: Absolutely. I didn’t start out with the plan to become an author. In fact, I’d always dreamed of becoming a Disney animator. But having been gifted hands that couldn’t draw, or sculpt, or paint very well… it posed a problem for that dream. Instead, my journey to storyteller began in the things I enjoyed—researching about art and history, and then writing about those things from the lens of faith. I didn’t understand until much later that I could still paint; I’d just paint with words.
How were you able to let go and follow your heart after being part of the structured corporate world?
K: It wasn’t a straight-line journey. And it sure had its ups and downs. After years of feeling this increasing tug on my heart that God was telling me to go—to quit the safety and security we’d built in my first career—it came to a point where I could no longer NOT respond. But here’s the important factor: I didn’t do it alone. My husband and I prayed about it for four years. We sought counsel from pastors and wise industry friends. We when we came to a decision, we brought our entire family into this journey, knowing it would affect them too. That’s the important thing to remember in any dream-chase. You stick close to Jesus, keep your dream-defenders in the fight with you, and then. . . you all leap together.
Debut novels are always memorable and hold a special place in every author’s heart. Tell us about yours.
K: By the time the idea for THE BUTTERFLY AND THE VIOLIN came along, our family had walked through two years of rejections. I told my agent at the time that I had this new book idea on the art of the Holocaust—the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz—and I just had to write it. But being a full-time working mom of two, the only time I had to write was while on maternity leave with our third son. I ended up spending middle-of-the-night hours with our newborn, hooking him in one arm to hold a bottle while I typed chapters on my phone with the other. We still joke in our family that those two babies were born at the same time!
Were you disheartened by the rejections you experienced at the beginning of your writing career, or did your faith always sustain you?
K: Yes and no. I tell aspiring authors that you have to draw a line in the sand on your dream, and then step over it. It meant for our family that every rejection wasn’t a “No.” It was a “Not yet” or a “Not here.” And with each one, I prayed for just a thimbleful of confidence to keep going. To try again. And with what would become my debut novel, I did. I submitted a manuscript to an unpublished writing contest. An editor from Thomas Nelson Publishers was the judge. She liked my writing and big surprise—I won! (She’s still my editor and we’re working on our tenth novel together.) But it was always an internal wrestling with the faith to keep going. It was the “Not yet” and “Not here” that anchored each step until we got our ‘Yes!’
Do your memories intertwine with or affect your writing?
K: More than memories… every heartbeat can find its way into an author’s book.
On the day our family finally got a ‘Yes!’ for my first contract, an hour later I got a call from my Dad: “This could be bad. I may have leukemia.” My journey editing THE BUTTERFLY AND THE VIOLIN was largely spent at the local cancer center, listening as he played the dulcimer while undergoing chemo treatments. Years later, I still remember those music notes going in my ear and somehow, coming out on the pages of that book. And before he went home to be with Jesus, we had time to change the dedication of my debut novel to him. Every book becomes a heart-witness to the life we live—for the author, the reader, or both.
The term ‘verse mapping’ seems really interesting. Please enlighten our readers about what is it and how did the idea spark in you? What are the steps to verse-mapping?
K: My Dad was saved and baptized at sixty years old. Two years later, I received his Bible and in it I found a treasure: highlighter marks that chronicled his time with Jesus during those last years.
Even though I’d loved and followed Jesus since I was sixteen years old, I wanted what he’d had. Verse Mapping came along in the months after his death as a way to answer a simple question: “How do I get closer to God when I don’t fully understand His Word?” Framing a simple study method that goes verse-by-verse became the answer. With 5 steps—Verse, Design, Develop, Actions, and Outcome—rooted in the corporate curriculum design models I’d done for so many years, I began to study. And understand. And for the first time, that question on my heart had a resounding answer that worked!
Do you have a favorite part of the Bible that you like to dive deep into?
K: It’s always been Psalm 139.
Many years ago, I attended a worship concert in Louisville, KY, where Michael W. Smith was recording a live album. I stood in the highest balcony seat and worshipped, having no idea then that God would one day call this directionless gal into ministry. But in the middle of that concert, Michael W. Smith paused on stage and began to recite Psalm 139—God’s love letter to each one of us. He shared those beautiful words with such conviction and depth, that an auditorium of thousands was struck silent. I was reduced to tears. And I’ve never forgotten the impact of that day. We always say in our Verse Mapping study group that “We’re going to Psalm-139 this thing!” because it speaks to the value, the intention, and the absolute love with which God desires relationship with each one of us.
You describe yourself as a history nerd. Tell us about your research process.
K: I’m a big supporter of libraries. And I’d tell any aspiring author that to write, you must read, read, read. So, research begins there. But I also know how I process information best. And as a largely visual and kinesthetic learner, I know I have to get my hands dirty with research. That means I need to experience some of what my characters will in order to understand their journey. Research has become my favorite part of the process as it’s taken our family to the most incredible places—the John and Mable Ringling’s Ca’ d’Zan mansion, touring a morgue in a former TB sanitarium, exploring castles in Ireland, and a working honeybee farm just to name a few!
How challenging was writing a story like ‘The Paris Dressmaker’, which is set in a different milieu (WW2)?
K: Each novel carries its own gifts and obstacles. I’d always had a love affair with Paris, since my early college days in researching the vast treasure trove of art in that city. I began writing THE PARIS DRESSMAKER during the first weeks of the worldwide pandemic in 2020, and in many ways, that framed the juxtaposition of beauty vs. pain that city experienced during WW2. We can’t make a comparison to what the people—particularly women—were forced to endure in a Nazi-occupied Paris during the war. But the closure of basic services, such as hair salons, shops, and the shortages of basic goods were suddenly a part of our lives today. And it gave a tiny bit of understanding (and a lot of humility) for how women joined the fight in the French Resistance and were willing to risk everything to do what they knew was right. That courage was inspiring and became the heartbeat of the novel.
You were among the contributors in the nonfiction book ‘Faithful Daughter,’ which celebrates God’s faithfulness and the powerful influence of a mother’s love. How has your mother and her faith shaped your life?
K: As a young girl, I knelt by the side of a bed and prayed to put my faith in Jesus Christ. My Mom was kneeling beside me, leading that prayer. It was the influence of other daughters—my Mom and grandmothers—that helped me understand walking with Jesus was more than religion; He would become the primary relationship of my life. And while we’ve all experienced hurts and loss and maybe even lost focus on Him in our difficult seasons… I believe a faith walk has little do with our faith in Him compared to His great and abiding faithfulness to us.
How has your family supported you in your writing journey?
K: In every way. It has always been my husband and sons, sister, parents, extended family, and our local church communities who’ve formed the definition of family. From cheering me on, to going all-in on research trips, to attending ministry events and even holding me up when it got hard and I wanted to quit… family is essential in the writing life. (This includes friends, who are the family we choose.) Keep your dream-defenders close and they will encourage every step of the way!
What is your advice for aspiring writers in the genre?
K: This is YOUR journey with Jesus. It won’t look like mine, or any other author’s path to publication. And that’s okay. But you have to name it in your life: “I am a writer.” And then hold fast. Even if rejections come. Even if you’re working two jobs and writing on your phone in the middle of the night. Even if you have setbacks and think maybe you’ve reached the end of the road… lean on Jesus. Because no matter what, He’s marked your path. And best of all? He’s ready to walk it with you.
Please tell us about your future projects.
K: At the height of the Nazi occupation of Rome, an unlikely band of heroes comes together to save Italian Jews in this breathtaking World War II novel based on real historical events… I can’t wait to share my next novel with readers! THE ITALIAN BALLERINA will release from HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Summer, 2022! You can learn more and pre-order HERE.
I’m also thrilled to embark on a new journey in 2022, as a literary agent with Gardner Literary Agency! For coaching services, submissions, and what we’re looking for in new authors we represent, find us at: gardner-literary.com.