Lynne Gentry shares about her latest, Return to Exile
An interview with Lynne Gentry,
Author of Return to Exile
Set against the backdrop of the birth of the Christian faith, fear and loss are pitted against the strength of a fledgling faith in Return to Exile (Howard Books/ January 6, 2015/ISBN: 978-1476746364/$14.99). Readers who were left on the edge of their seats after closing the covers of Healer of Carthage will devour this second installment in The Carthage Chronicles and be challenged to examine their own courage in the face of adversity.
Six years ago, a mysterious time portal forced Dr. Lisbeth Hastings to leave behind the love of her life, not just in another country, but in another time. Her work in the present day, along with parenting her little girl, helps alleviate the pain, but at night when her exhausted head hits the pillow, images of her beloved Cyprian haunt her.
Meanwhile in third-century Rome, Cyprian Thascius comes back from political exile a broken man. He’s lost his faith and the love of his life. He attempts to move on and face the danger looming over Carthage, but when Cyprian’s true love suddenly reappears, his heart becomes as imperiled as the fledgling church he seeks to save.
Q: Return to Exile takes readers from modern times all the way back to third-century Rome. What inspired you to connect these two eras?
Two unrelated fascinations. First, the call of adventure. I long to travel and experience many different cultures. I wish I could live unfettered by the restraints of time and money, but since I can’t, reading takes me on these adventures. So, when I read about a group of tourists kidnapped while exploring the remote Cave of the Swimmers in the mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau of the Sahara (in southwest Egypt), my imagination immediately took me to the Sahara desert. What if the tourists weren’t kidnapped? What if they fell through a hole in the cave floor? What if that hole was actually a time portal to another era?
Yet, it wasn’t until I learned about the third-century Plague of Cyprian that my second fascination kicked in: epidemics. My mother was a survivor of the 1940s polio epidemic, and I grew up watching her struggle to walk. Until a vaccine was discovered, this deadly illness killed and maimed more than half a million people. Hearing my grandmother tell how terrified she was when she realized her little girl was ill gave me deep insight into the fear that must have seized the Roman Empire in the third century. What better adventure than dropping a medically trained heroine into a deadly Roman epidemic thousands of years before her time?
Q: One of your main characters, Cyprian, is an actual historical figure. Tell us a little bit about him. How did you stay close to the truth of his life while still taking the freedom to spin your story?
My stories are loosely based upon multiple historical accounts and Cyprian’s own extensive writings. Cyprianus Thascius was raised as the son of a wealthy Roman senator. He lived a life of Roman privilege, became a powerful and well-respected lawyer and orator and never set out to change the world. He converted to Christianity in his late fifties but still had difficulty divorcing some aspects of his Roman heritage. For example, he never completely embraced the idea of equality. Although he was willing to spend his fortune caring for the poor as well as the rich, he ran the church as if it were a social hierarchy, with a patrician like himself at the top. Obviously, I made my hero a bit younger and allowed him to marry. I held very closely though to the personal faith struggles Cyprian expressed in his various treaties. This man was willing to give up his life for his faith, and yet he still had doubts — this was a huge inspiration and encouragement to me.
Q: Tell us about the research you did while writing Return to Exile. Was there anything you found that surprised you?
Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I start out looking for one thing, and that always leads to another and another and another thing. I think the discovery that surprised me the most with this project was the personal struggle of Cyprian. His extensive writings gave me a glimpse into a flawed man. Realizing God used Cyprian despite his imperfections gives me — and should give all of us — a great deal of hope.
Q: As you’ve alluded to, Cyprian suffered a crisis of faith. Why do so many fall victim to that fate when their expectations of the Christian life and reality do not match?
That is a good question that has caused believers to scratch their heads and examine their hearts for centuries. For me, doubt comes when I can’t reconcile how a perfectly good God would allow me to suffer imperfect circumstances. When I’m in the middle of a storm, taking a moment to recall God’s past faithfulness gives me hope for the future.
Q: Lisbeth struggles with control but soon comes to realize control is an illusion. Can you think of something you’ve had to learn you can’t control?
Nearly everything in this life! The weather. Aging. People’s opinions of me. My children. Even my dog seems to have a mind of his own. I hate it sometimes, but it comes down to this: The only thing I can control is my attitude toward life’s circumstances. Most days that’s a full-time job.
Q: As Return to Exile opens, we find a character who douses his body in expensive nard, or perfume, to cover the symptoms of his illness. We often go to great lengths to mask what is eating at us. Have you ever experienced the dangers of covering your struggles?
After my mother died, I pushed aside my anger and grief and soldiered on. I didn’t miss a beat in my grueling schedule. Everyone said I was handling everything extremely well, and I told myself they were right. A year later though, when another unexpected life setback struck, I fell into a deep depression. To my surprise, hiding my grief behind a fake smile had allowed my anger to fester into a bitter poison. I still don’t blab all of my problems on Facebook, but I have learned how to share my struggles with couple of trusted friends. Their prayers and encouragement are a treasure.
Q: As you were writing about the persecution Christians faced in third-century Rome, did you see any similarities between that time period and situations that occurred later in history?
When it comes to defending my faith I would like to think I would have the same courage many believers have demonstrated throughout history. I confess there’s a bit of cowardice in me. The thing that struck me during this research process was how much Christians have suffered for their choices. According to a recent survey, at least 75 percent of religious persecution around the world is directed at people of the Christian faith. I believe the day is fast approaching when the church will find itself backed against the wall. I pray when that day comes, I will have the courage to join the ranks of those who stared down arena cats, the guns of Hitler or the imprisonment of the Chinese.
Q: In Return to Exile, we notice in many ways the third-century church was not raising arms against the powerful people who were doing serious wrong against those with less power and wealth. In your opinion, what is the difference between turning the other cheek and plain cowardice?
Turning the other cheek requires one to plant their feet and face straight at whatever comes, while a coward will hide or take flight. I found it fascinating that early Christians did both. Some stayed and stared down evil by doing good. Others fled the city or hid their faith behind certificates of libellus, or pieces of paper saying they were loyal to Rome, which they could produce if questioned about their religious loyalties. Looking at the brave acts of those Christians who didn’t run or hide raised a serious question for me: In the same kind of situation, would I have that kind of courage?
Q: Time travel is a huge element in Return to Exile. If you could time-travel, where would you want to go and what would you want to do?
Most days, I’d just like to go back and redo some of the choices I made yesterday.
Terrifying as this may sound, I think I would like to return to third-century Carthage and join hands with the believers.
Q: TV shows and films featuring time travel are all the rage right now. Why do you think that idea is such an alluring one? What does the Bible have to say about time?
I think time travel intrigues us because we all have regrets. Escaping the consequences of those mistakes makes the ability to go back and fix them, or jump ahead and distance ourselves from them, very attractive.
In Return to Exile, Lisbeth digs out her father’s Bible to answer the question of what God’s Word has to say about time. She reads 2 Peter 3:8, which says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Luke chapter nine tells the story of Moses and Elijah transfigured from the past to stand beside Jesus in the present. The most important and precise passage about time is John chapter one, which references God’s presence from the beginning of time. Obviously, God operates in a realm of great complexity when it comes to time. Eternity, for example, is one of those complexities. Time without end is a difficult concept for the human mind to grasp. For us, everything has an expiration date — milk, medicine or men.
Q: Return to Exile is the second book in The Carthage Chronicles series. The first book, Healer of Carthage, ended with such a cliff-hanger. When you’re writing a series, does the story unfold as you write, or do you plan the whole series from start to finish before you start writing?
Return to Exile is the middle of what was originally one story. So yes, I knew some of the things that had to happen. However, I love experiencing the story along with the characters, which means I’m often surprised. For example, I had originally planned for Lisbeth and Maggie to get separated because Maggie refused to enter the time portal. I was writing along, and all of a sudden that little sprite ran and jumped in after her mother. I literally screamed, “Noooooo!” And then I thought, “Now what?” Having Maggie in the third century changed the whole story in ways I never planned but absolutely love.
Q: You wrote this book from a lot of different points of view or in different “voices.” Was that very difficult to do? Did you ever get confused switching back and forth?
Managing a large cast on the page is a lot like managing one on the stage. I love that. To me, it is exciting to pop into someone’s shoes and look at the world from their eyes. Whenever similar phrases in narrative or dialogue sneak in, I realize those came from me, not the character. Writers can’t help but bring their past experiences to their characters. The challenge is to spread our junk around so we create cast members capable of standing on their own.
Q: Can you give us any hints about what’s coming next as you conclude The Carthage Chronicles?
I guess what you’re really asking is will Lisbeth and Cyprian be reunited? Will Cyprian face the chopping block? If I told you, then you wouldn’t need to buy the third book. I do know this: There’s a new guy in town. If you thought things were bad in Return to Exile, they get a whole lot worse before they get better in Valley of Decision, which is the third book in the series releasing next year.
Q: What do you want readers to take away with them after reading Return to Exile?
Like many people, fear of failure has held me hostage. It has only been through the perfect love of Jesus Christ I have found the courage to accept my imperfections. If the struggles Lisbeth and Cyprian faced encourage one reader to cast aside fear, I know there will be singing in heaven.
To keep up with Lynne Gentry, visit www.lynnegentry.com, become a fan on Facebook (Author-Lynne-Gentry) or follow her on Twitter (@Lynne_Gentry) and Pinterest (lynnegentry7).