Toni Shiloh is a wife, mom, and multi-published Christian contemporary romance author. She writes to bring God glory and to learn more about His goodness. Her novels, Grace Restored, was a 2019 Holt Medallion finalist, Risking Love a 2020 Selah Award finalist, The Truth About Fame a 2021 Holt Medallion finalist, and The Price of Dreams a 2021 Maggie Award finalist. A member of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and of the Virginia Chapter, Toni seeks to encourage authors in the writing industry.
In an intimate interview with Agape Review, Toni discusses her faith, writing career, and the importance of diversity in fiction.
When did your writing journey start? Was there a book or an author who inspired you to write in the first place?
I’ve always loved reading, and many authors inspired me to want to create my own story. However, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I went back to school to earn my bachelor’s that the writing bug truly took hold.
Your name Shiloh means “heavenly peace.” Is there a story behind how you got the name?
I married my husband. I was happy to take his last name and when I became an author, I thanked him for gifting me with such a beautiful one.
Your bio states that once you “understood the powerful saving grace of the love of Christ,” you were “moved to honor” your Savior. At which point in life did this realization dawn on you?
There was a moment in life where I had to confess the sins I’d committed. The overwhelming grace of Jesus filled me and I made a choice to live a life that would only honor God. I essentially died to self in that moment and recognized the path I had been on was not a good one. God has been blessing me ever since.
Tell us more about your stint in the Air Force. How was the experience? Which are the places you have traveled to? Do you plan on writing a romance set against an Air Force backdrop in the future?
I served for six years living in places like England and Georgia and traveling to places like Italy and other European countries. I have created stories with military veterans, but not sure if I will ever have a complete military romance.
You have 27 published books to your credit, which is really impressive, that, too, within a short span of time. You must feel like a proud momma, seeing your book garner praise and acclaim. How exhilarating is the experience?
Very! It’s so heartwarming to engage with readers and know they understood the messages I hoped to convey between the pages.
Some of your books explore themes like colonization and racism. Most books in the Christian fiction genre are light-hearted and don’t explore complex themes. What drove you to explore such themes?
Writing is often a way for me to answer some of the hard questions in my brain. They may be difficult topics to talk about face-to-face, but the story has a way of building connection and relatability that is often missed in everyday life. Not only that, but it can build empathy and compassion for our fellowman. Writing these stories gives me a chance to have the conversations in a safe environment.
What are the impediments authors of color face while approaching traditional publishing houses with their Christian fiction manuscripts? What could publishing houses do better to accommodate and encourage diverse voices?
I’ve had many different rejections over the years because some publishing houses didn’t want to take a chance on my stories. Either they didn’t understand the dynamics of African American characters or won’t willing to try. I’ve seen some publishing houses make initiatives to seek more diverse voices and I applaud that. I can only hope that change will happen and authors of color will feel more comfortable seeking traditional publishing because they don’t feel like a project but feel welcomed.
You met your better half in the US Air Force. How did your own love story begin? Have you incorporated parts of your own love life into your stories?
Our love story definitely falls into the insta-love trope. It may be why I enjoy reading the trope and have used it in a few stories. I know some people find it unrealistic, but it was true for me.
Does your husband read your manuscripts before they are published? Does he offer constructive suggestions?
No, he doesn’t read them, but whenever I’m stuck or have a question, he’s willing to talk me through it.
White Christian women authors have monopolized the contemporary Christian fiction genre. Most of their stories supposedly cater only to a particular ethnicity and denomination. How does it feel to be an author of color in this specific genre and represent diverse voices?
I’m thankful for every author/reader who has made me feel like a writer without the caveat of being Black. But there are those times where I very much feel isolated and lonely in the genre.
You have been traditionally published as well as self-published. How do you navigate through the challenges in each publishing mode?
One prayer at a time. They both have their challenges, but I’m lucky to have author friends on both paths to publishing that offer advice.
Tell us about your upcoming release, To Win A Prince. How did you get the idea for the book?
I always knew that Iris would end up with Ekon. I don’t remember if it’s because I brainstormed it that way or if it just felt right. However, I don’t plot, so the story didn’t unfold until I typed it out on my laptop.
According to multiple research studies, African-Americans are the most religious group in the United States. Despite this, they are, unfortunately, underrepresented in the Christian fiction genre, in stark contrast to their white coreligionists. What’s your take on this?
I think publishing houses have yet to reflect this and that has had its impact.
You have written romances featuring Black MCs as well as multiracial romances. According to you, how crucial is diversity in fiction, particularly Christian fiction?
Very crucial. The body of Christ is not one color and I don’t think that Christian fiction should be one either. The more we can show the many nations of the world, the more people we can reach for Christ, in my opinion.
You are a member of the amazing Sisters of Faith collective, which composed of eighteen Christian women authors of color who write about faith, family, and love. How does it feel to be part of such a terrific team? How do you help out each other in your respective writing journeys?
It’s amazing! I was so honored when they asked me to join their team. It was a definite pinch-me moment. They’re there to offer advice, support individual releases, encourage by prayer, and they offer once a month writing sessions together. It’s great to be encouraged by women who look like me and share the love of faith and family and books.
Looking back down memory lane, what’s the one piece of advice you wish someone would have given you when you started out as a writer?
Join a writing group before you publish and build those connections and strengthen your craft.
It’s hard to play favorites. But if we’d ask you which is your most favorite book you have ever written, which one would be your pick?
Oh wow, it really is hard to play favorites. I can honestly say that To Win a Prince stole my heart while writing. It was so fun but also so full of God’s grace that I was in awe.
The Christian fiction genre has been often criticized for its lack of nuanced characters. What’s your opinion on this?
I disagree. There are so many nuanced characters in the genre these days. Whether published independently or traditionally, there is something for every reader. Sometimes it’s just hard to find.
Do you have a dedicated space or time for writing? When does the inspiration hit?
I have a desk in a portion of my living room where I write. I normally write during my kids’ school hours so that I’m present once they’re home.
Where do you see yourself in God’s greater plan for you to touch others through your writings?
I don’t think that’s something I can see into the future. I do believe I’m doing what He’s asked of me and will continue to seek Him and make sure I stay on that path.
Which is the most heartwarming feedback you have ever received from a reader of yours?
That’s hard to choose! I’ve gotten feedback from readers who thanked me for giving them characters they can relate to, from readers who love seeing African Americans on a cover, and from readers who felt convicted to live a better faith life. It’s all touched me and motivated me to keep writing.
Earlier this year, you plunged into the world of audiobooks and released the Audible version of In Search of a Prince. To Win A Prince is also releasing on Audible this month. How was the audiobook production process? Did you play an integral role in supervising the process, particularly in choosing the narrator?
That was all handled by a subsidiary publisher. The only thing they really had me do was provide a pronunciation guide for the narrator. I’m super happy with who they chose and can’t wait for audio fans to hear To Win a Prince.
How you deal with rejections and setback as a writer? How has God offered you solace during the lowest points in your life?
I’ve got some great author friends who encourage me when I feel my lowest. A lot of times, I’ll also get a message from a reader during those points. If it’s not writing related but personal, God still looks out for me. I recently had a reader send me a book on chronic pain as a gift because she knows it’s something I’ve struggled with. God is good.
You had mentioned that you wrote poetry in high school. Did you explore your love for poetry after that? Can we expect a poetry collection from you in the future?
I’ve mainly used poetry to explore my own emotions. I’ve never published them and currently don’t have any plans to do so.
Who are the writers you look up to in life?
So many! Vanessa Riley, Vanessa Miller, Rhonda McKnight, Stacy Hawkins Adams, Becky Wade, Melissa Tagg, Sarah Monzon (my BFF), and many more. Writing is such a hard task, but these ladies make it look easy.
Tell us about your family. Have they been a pillar of support in your writing journey?
I’ve got some awesome parents. My dad will buy my books and pass them around to his friends and family. My mom reads every single one of them and recommends them to anyone she talks to. My husband loves to talk about them to his coworkers and has been known to stop random people who were shopping to let them know I released a book. Their support feels me with love.
You are raising two wonderful kids. What are the books you make them read? Have you ever contemplated writing a Christian-themed children’s book?
When they were younger, it was easy to pick out all their books. Now that they’re older (middle/high school age), they can express the books that interest them and not. I guess the only book I require they read is the Bible. The rest is based on if I deem it appropriate or not. I have contemplated writing middle school aged books or teen ones, but still not sure if I will.
You regularly post Bible verses on Instagram. Which is the one verse that is closest to your heart?
I think it changes each year. It used to be Philippians 4:6-7 but this year I’ve been thinking on 1 Corinthians 10:31.
What would your advice be for aspiring writers in the Christian fiction genre?
To follow the path God leads you. Make sure you’re writing the story He’s called you to. Find a writing group to be a part of so that your writing can grow and make friends. It’s the best group to belong to, in my opinion.
Tell us about your upcoming releases. What are the surprises you have in store for us?
So many! I’ll be writing a short novella set in Ọlọrọ Ilé to be released early 2023. I also have two Love Inspired books coming out. They’re set in Arkansas and introduce a new family to cheer for.